On 25 July 1943 – as Primo Levi recalled – came the internal collapse of Fascism, the piazzas jammed with happy, fraternal crowds, the spontaneous and precarious joy of a country to which liberty had been given by a palace intrigue’: the king, who had made Mussolini his cousin by conferring on him the Collare dell’Annunziata (a Catholic ‘gong’), betrayed the Duce and later abandoned the country to the Germans. Outsider remembers: ‘Italy comes back to smile’ edtorialised the Corriere della sera that day.
The Resistenza against the Fascists, which had begun in 1919, turned against the invading Germans. The partisans acted with a solemn commitment: ‘To suffer, to die, never to betray’, in the name of Justice and Liberty. Liberation in April 1945 cost 100,000 dead.
At the moment of changing sides, the Italians held perhaps 80,000 British prisoners in camps. None of them had until then succeeded in making an escape which could carry outside Italian territory. In a moment of total military confusion, many commandants simply opened the gates, and let the prisoners move out. The quicker-witted, luckier, tougher, and more resolute of them streamed towards the Apennine valleys. Some joined the partisan bands which soon sprang up, a few hid, many were recaptured, and some thousands walked out south-eastward towards the battle-line. One of them had the leisure to write, in odd moments, two of the most powerful English novels to come out of the war; and never lived to revise them, because he got involved in a gun battle with a Gestapo agent who tried to break up the escape line he ran. Thousands of those former prisoners, British for the most part, were helped, sheltered, guided in their ‘long walk’ by Italian peasants who were fully aware of the fact that if they were caught in the act of doing so they would be summarily executed by the Nazi-fascists. The hospitality the contadini have always shown to strangers in their countryside, the warm-heartedness and generosity which always characterised patriarchal Italian society, prevailed over the barbaric laws of war.
Eric Newby, on the run in the Apennines above Parma as an escaped prisoner-of-war late in 1943, recorded an interesting example of peasant solidarity. A group of farmers, all draw from two related families, sent for him. Their spokesman said: “Many of the people in this village and in the farms around about have sons and relatives who are being hunted by the Germans. Three of them were taken the other day. Some of them have sons in Russia of whom, so far, there is no news and who may never return. They feel that you are in a similar condition to that of their sons who, they hope, are being given help wherever they are, and they think that it is their duty to help you through the coming winter, which otherwise you will not survive.” Life as an escapee was very risky. To get out of the camps might have been easy in some cases, but to travel was hazardous.
Let Newby testify: “Italians are fascinated by minutiae of dress and the behaviour of their fellow men, perhaps to a greater degree than almost any other race [his word] in Europe, and the ingenious subterfuges and disguises which escaping prisoners of war habitually resorted to and which were often enough to take in the Germans: the documents, train tickets, and ration cards, lovingly fabricated by the camp’s staff of expert forgers; the suit made from dyed blankets; the desert boots cut down to look like shoes and the carefully bleached army shirts were hardly ever sufficiently genuine-looking to fool even the most myopic Italian ticket collector and get the owner past the barrier, let alone survive the scrutiny of the occupants of a compartment on an Italian train. The kind of going over to which an escaping Anglo-Saxon was subjected by other travellers was usually enough to finish him off unless he was a professional actor or spoke fluent Italian. And, in Italy, before the Armistice, there were no members of the Resistance or railway employees of the Left, as there were in France, to help escaping prisoners out of the country along an organised route.”
On the other side of the front line, Eisenhower himself found a way of reminding Badoglio of the plight of the armed Italian soldiers captured by the Germans when, on 29 September, the second Armistice was signed in Malta. This was known as the Long Armistice because, unlike that which had been signed in Sicily, it contained certain political, economic and financial clauses in addition to those which were purely military. At long last, on 11 October, through the Italian Ambassador in Madrid, an ultimatum was presented to the Third Reich, stating that as from three o’clock on 13 October 1943, Italy would consider herself in a state of war with Germany.
The Italian change of sides, and the establishment of Allied forces in southern Italy, enabled the Allies to provide support for resistance all over the Balkans. The Allied Command in Cairo continued to be in charge of most operations into the peninsula; but work into Yugoslavia, where most German forces were pinned and the greatest possibilities of subversive expansion seemed to lie, was detached from the commander-in-chief, Middle East, and placed under the supreme commander, Mediterranean theatre – that is, under Allied Force Headquarters at Algiers, with advanced headquarters at Caserta, near Naples. So much work was done by Allied Force Headquarters on subversion that it added to its four conventional branches – G1 troops, G2 information, G3 operations and G4 supply – the novelty of G5 special forces.
The fighting in Yugoslavia was particularly savage and confused; to the wild terrain, poor roads, rough tracks, few railways, the variegated population added many further doubts for the travelling soldier – on any of the several combatant sides. German, Ustaše, Bulgars, Italians, partisans, two sorts of Četnik, Greeks, Albanians – there already were nine distinguishable groups, and there were several more; though none but the Germans and Italians could be distinguished at a glance by their clothes.
Tito’s partisans secured a great deal of Italian armament; and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia’s nation-wide organisation was efficient enough for the partisan army to multiply ten times almost overnight, absorbing a great many Croats – some of them recent deserters from the Wehrmacht. By November 1943 Tito had about a quarter of a million available armed soldiers, and a decent proportion of artillery units. This meant that he could tackle the Germans on equal and the Ustaše on superior terms; it also released him from much dependence on the Special Operations Executive for supplies of arms. On the other hand, Tito’s troops’ needs in blankets, boots, and food were greater than ever. Office of Strategic Services was by now ready to join the supply The Allied presence in southern Italy, and the decision at the highest level at Teheran that Tito was to receive full support, transformed the problem as well.
Churchill and Roosevelt, particularly, put their full personal weight behind the business of arming the partisans. Liberators became available in quantity, for drops; so did Dakotas, for pick-ups. Late in 1943 4,000 wounded were flown out of Yugoslavia from Balkan air terminal service landing-strips to hospitals in Italy, thus relieving Tito from a crushing moral and tactical burden; a further 8,000, including 2,000 civilians, were flown out in 1944. Naval and Special boat Section operations in the Adriatic, supported by a British commando brigade and a partisan fishing fleet, cleared Vis (Lissa) and some other Dalmatian island of Italian troops, and provided Tito with a secure summer rear headquarters in 1944. In November 1943 the second formal session of the Yugoslav National Anti-fascist Liberation Council at Jaice in the Central Bosnian Canton had proclaimed him marshal, and had set up a national liberation committee as the provisional government of post-war Yugoslavia. By this time he was in somewhat closer touch with Moscow.
During the course of these events, I was in Ferrara, a small town, now of 200,000 between Venice and Bologna, but out of the way of German invasions which, for centuries had come via the Brenner Pass, down through Verona. Our elders’ first thought went to public records, where addresses could be found, enemies identified, Arbeitseinsatz (forced labour) mobilised. The police headquarters were already in the hands of the Germans, who occupied the Estense Castle, one of the gems of the Este family – another is Villa d’Este in Tivoli. A major concern was the Draft Board Building, where records were kept of all persons subject to military service. The matter was of capital urgency.
There was this meeting, way into the night, of neighbours of ours and others. The head of the military district came with his daughter, who had been my sweetheart for years – she was not yet fourteen. Then there was the City Chief Engineer, with his son two years older than me. And then along came a judge, a Deputy Crown Prosecutor: Pasquale Colagrande – an unusual southerner, very tall, blond with beautiful blue eyes, distinguished in manners, and married to an equally intelligent and beautiful woman. They shared a large, happy family. Everybody in town knew, admired, and envied them. There were others: Mario Zanatta – my father’s closest colleague, Ugo Teglio another lawyer, Vittore Hanau a businessman. Of them I will say more shortly.
They were all persons of civic courage, of personal and professional probity. But they were also men of propriety, hesitant to trespass on – let alone damage – public property. Left without orders, military personnel do not destroy buildings. Engineers by and large build or re-build. Crown law people normally do not violate the law. Lawyers do not take readily to crime. There was the rub.
Each speaker expressed moral restraint. To three of us, young, trusted and overhearing the conversation, such concerns seemed excuses for inaction. We passed final judgement. Not quite fifteen, fourteen and seventeen we knew better. We were of course wrong; most of those present would at different times pay for their daring actions. They left my house early in the morning, apparently without having reached a conclusion as to what to do. A good can of petrol and rags found in the building made a good fire which destroyed the draft records later that morning. The Germans were at the door.
In the confusion which followed the armistice, German paratroopers freed Mussolini. He was rescued, by a brilliant coup de main of Otto Skorzeny’s, from the hotel in the Abruzzi where he had been ineffectually hidden, as early as 12 September 1943; and was settled by Hitler at Salò on Lake Garda, in charge of a nominal republic. Italians took to refer to it in the pejorative-diminutive, as a repubblichina; it had little information and less authority; but it was fascist, so it had some atrocity in its manners. Mussolini’s ‘liberation’ came with a tag: from October 1943 the Germans would annexe and combine the Trentino Alto Adige and Belluno, and Venezia Giulia and Udine (renamed by them Südtiroler Alpenland and Adriatische Küstenland).
Two weeks later, from Germany, Mussolini proclaimed himself head of state of the Italian Social Republic. For days later, Naples rose up, and after a four-day battle was freed by Allied forces moving north. The Allies had seemed to be in no hurry to move north and were stopped at the Gustav Line, which passed through Cassino. There they would stay until June 1944.