The town of Anzio is haunted by the memory of a little girl who may never have existed.
The landing at Anzio, 25 miles south of Rome, on 22 January 1944, was a critical moment in the Second World War. The battle that followed cost 28,000 Allied casualties, but turned the German flank and opened the road to Rome.
On the 60th anniversary yesterday, a couple of dozen British veterans returned to the place that had brought them fear, grief and triumph.
But the battle also reduced Anzio's population to famished nomads in their own land. And for Anzio, the most potent symbol of all they suffered was a little girl called Angelita.
When the first wave of British soldiers roared out of their landing craft 60 years ago, one of them found a little girl sitting alone on the sandy beach and weeping. The soldier gathered her in his arms and took her to safety. He and his comrades gave her a name and looked after her; she became their mascot. But before the story could have a happy ending, she was blown apart by a German shell.
Arthur Hawkins of The Duke of Wellington's Regiment, on his first return to Anzio since the war, yesterday recalled wading ashore, "shouting and screaming and swearing, as the officer told us to".
James Docherty, a medical sergeant 60 years ago, remembers how, during the battle that followed the landing, he went into the woods in search of wounded British soldiers, and was surprised by a solitary German with a revolver. "'For you the war is over', he told me in perfect English."
But at the name of Angelita, all the veterans I spoke to looked blank. The man who claimed to have discovered her, Christopher Hayes of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, lived in Teddington, south-west London, before emigrating to Sydney. He died two years ago. But the story that he reported lives on.
It epitomised the cruelty of war as the local people experienced it. Forced by the Germans into the woods outside the town, they were evacuated again as the battle raged, and sent to Calabria or Sicily. There they fought over scraps of food with the local people.
"My mother fed me gruel made from ground-up husks of wheat," a local man remembered. "I was so skinny that the Calabrian women told her, 'He's finished, throw him away'."
A local historian, Amerigo Salvini, has looked into Mr Hayes's story and believes it is untrue. There are too many variations in detail and improbabilities, he says. "If soldiers found a child they would have handed her over at once to the medical corps," he said.
But Angelita is beyond the reach of historians. Today by Anzio's shore a life-size bronze of a girl with her hair in bunches stands looking out to sea, amid a storm of gulls.Reuse content