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1943 – AN EPIC YEAR: Turning the Nazi-fascist tide (part two)

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 Quebec Conference (17-24 August 1943), the principle of Italy’s unconditional surrender had been confirmed, but it had been conceded that this might be modified according to how much help the Italian Government and the Italian people were prepared to afford the Allied. While the popular excitement was at its height and during the course of a widespread strike, the Committee of Opposition met in Milan and decided unanimously to demand the total liquidation of Fascism, the signing of an armistice, the restitution of all civil and political rights – particularly that of freedom of the press, the release of all political prisoners, and the formation of a government which would include representatives of the anti-fascist parties.

In Sicily the first fires of revolt blazed up, kindled by the arrogance of the Nazis who had discarded the mask of ‘allies’ during the retreat from Catania to Messina. On 2 August the people of Mascalucia, a municipality of Catania, rose up, and on 12 August, Castiglione, another municipality, became the scene of the first German reprisals: sixteen unarmed civilians were executed in cold blood.

What was Badoglio waiting for, what promise had he made to himself? What action was he taking on the international plan? While certain semi-official Italian missions were trying to make contact with the Allies, General Castellano, the envoy of the Badoglio Government, was sent to Lisbon, arriving on 12 August. After preliminary talks, he proceeded to Madrid where he put before Sir Samuel Hoare the plan for an Italian campaign against Germany. The discussions which went on until 17 August proved fruitless; General Castellano’s overtures were met with the uncompromising words: “unconditional surrender”, the unconditional surrender which had been decided upon by the Allies at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943.

Badoglio continued negotiating with the Allies for an armistice. On 3 September 1943 the military terms of the Short Armistice were signed at Cassibile in Sicily by General Castellano representing the Badoglio Government and General Bedell Smith representing General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Mediterranean Forces. The only decision to be reached in the hours which followed was that of evacuating the Savoyard, his family and the Government to a place of safety in Southern Italy.

In the small hours of 9 September, the Savoyard and his family, with an escort of generals and functionaries, left Rome, without leaving orders, to travel to Pescara, where two corvettes were waiting. They stepped aboard, and left the fate of the nation hanging on mid-air. The Italian people were literally at the mercy of the Germans.

The Motorised Armoured Corps, commanded by General Carboni, and consisting of four divisions, the Piave, Ariete, Granadieri and Centauro divisions, was based in Rome. Despite all this, however, at about three o’clock on 9 September, the Motorised Corps, which had not yet seen action, was ordered by the Supreme Command to fall back on Tivoli in order to ensure the safe conduct of the royal cortege to Pescara. The Italian Army was now in desperate straits; abandoned by the Savoyard, nominally by the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, it had been left with no clear directives; it had no leaders capable of rallying it and taking the place of the Supreme Command. Each component of the Armed Forces acted independently, united only in hostility to the Germans.

On 8 September, after darkness had fallen, the main body of the Fleet, entirely unprotected by air-cover, left the ports of Genoa and La Spezia on a daring voyage to Malta. German bombers promptly attacked and, just off La Maddalena, the flag ship Roma was hit. It blew up with heavy loss of life; Admiral Bergamini and 1,500 of its complement were killed at action stations.

In the Dodecanese, Admiral Mascherpa, who was in command of the garrison of Leros, held out for fifty days against a devastating enemy attack. At Corfu the Resistance was led by Colonel Lusignani, who fought with the Greek partisans. He was captured by the Germans and shot. On 19 September, at Piombino, when a small German invasion force coming from Corsica threatened to land, Italian soldiers, sailors and civilians took matters into their own hand, seized and manned the coastal batteries and repelled the enemy with heavy losses.

In Piedmont, General Vercellino, in a vain attempt to extricate the Fourth Army Corps from the encircling German Armies, blew up the Mont Cenis tunnel. In Corsica, the Cremona and Friuli divisions, keeping their ranks unbroken and refusing to surrender their arms, joined with the French troops under General Louchet in the attack on the powerful German garrison.

But it is, perhaps, in the incident of Cephalonia that the tragic plight of the Italian Army is most clearly to be seen. There, on a tiny island, officers and men alike repudiated the surrender which had already been agreed to by the High Command, and far from handing over their weapons to the Germans, immediately opened fire on them.

At 2 a.m. on 14 September, the Acqui division organised a plebiscite and voted solidly for war to the end. The Germans attacked by land, sea and air: for seven consecutive days the Stukas zoomed incessantly over the island. On 22 September, 5,900 officers and men were assassinated by German forces. In the days which followed, the enemy captured and summarily executed hundred more. In all 8,400 Italians lost their lives on Cephalonia where the bodies were left to rot. “Burial is too good for the rebel swine,” said the German Major Hirschfield. It would be for the Greek partisans reverently to raise rough mounds over mangled flesh and whitening bones.

In Albania, in the Balkans, in France and in Greece, what was left of the Italian divisions threw in their fortunes with the partisans. In Montenegro, on 2 December, the survivors of the Ferrara and of the Emilia divisions banded themselves together and formed the Garibaldi division a formation which was strictly partisan in character.

Still, the most outstanding proof of the feeling of the Italian people was given by the 710,000 Italian prisoners-of-war in Germany – most outstanding because their suffering was unwitnessed. Some forty thousand of them died in the camps. The survivors were offered their freedom by the Germans on condition that they would join the forces of the Italian Social Republic of Mussolini; the fact that only 1.03 per cent agreed to do so was incontrovertible evidence that the people of Italy had condemned out of hand the Nazi-fascist pseudo-Republic.

On 19 September 1943, some thousand men of the Fourth Army who had succeeded in establishing themselves in the mountains above Boves, in the province of Cuneo, were attacked by the Germans. The Italian gold braid instantly melted away, but junior officers took over the command, and rallied their troops so effectively that the battle was far longer and fiercer than the enemy had anticipated. The Nazis vented their full spleen on Boves, reducing it to ashes and burning alive 32 of its inhabitants, among whom was the parish priest. This was but the beginning of the long series of massacres which marked the German occupation of Italy, the most savage of which would be those at Marzabotto, Sant’Anna and Vinca.

When the fighting was over at Boves, a number of subalterns decided to remain in the mountains and organise Resistance groups. By 15 September, they had been joined by 2,000 men. These bands formed the nucleus of one of the largest partisan formations in Piedmont, the Autonomi. Another incident took place hundreds of kilometres from Boves. In the Abruzzi mountains, at the extreme limit of German-occupied territory, some 1,600 men had gathered beneath the overhanging massif of Monte Bosco, some forty kilometres from Teramo, in the hope of retaining their formation until such time as British and American troops arrived. Only 320 were regulars, however; about 100 were British and Slav ex-prisoners of war, while the remaining 1,200 were young men from Teramo who had instantly made up their minds to join the force in the mountains and support it to the full.

On 25 September a German column made its appearance, preceded by a hostage, a high-ranking Italian officer. If the Nazis believed this would prevent their adversaries from opening fire, they were soon disillusioned: the patriots suddenly swooped down, rescued the hostage, and killed the major in charge of the column. At the end of the day, they were decidedly in the better position: they had killed 57 Germans and lost only six of their own men. Fighting was resumed on the 26, but the tide turned when enemy reinforcements arrived, and the Germans threw another thousand men into the battle. The patriots were compelled to withdraw, but before doing so, they set fire to their supplied and put their artillery out of action. Unable thought they were to retain their formation, they split up into bands and remained in the mountains. Should it be thought for a moment that anything was better than falling prisoners of the Germans, consider the other contribution to the partisan war – that of the volunteers.

Four female Italian anti-Fascist fighters taking a break (image from Pinterest)

The Partisan Movement, far from being an offshoot of the regular army, was an entirely new and independent growth. On 8 September 1943 no-one sounded the call to arms. A country which already bled 400,000 lives – the youngest, and the most promising, in France, in Greece, in Yugoslavia, in Russia, in Africa – everywhere Italians had died for nothing, a prostrated country like that, was capable of something mysterious, which defied human explanation.

It began, perhaps, in the province of Cuneo. A dozen men took to the mountains. They were peaceful people: lawyers, a judge, a typographer, some craftsmen. They seemed not to know what they wanted; what they knew was that it was time to take to the mountains. Ten of them met on 13 September in the rectory of a little church, La Madonna del Colletto, where there is now a stone which remembers their gathering. They were ten, they shook hands and spoke briefly: “We are here to make war on the Germans and the Fascists.” This is what Duccio Galimberti and Dante Livio Bianco said. Ten – and they wanted to make war against the Germans. Two years later they had become the partisan army which would take the surrender of 825,000 Kesselring’s barbarians.

Meantime, in the south, the British and Americans were moving slowly forward in the Salerno sector where, but for massive air-cover, they would have been thrown back to the sea. Soldiers and civilians alike were fighting throughout Southern Italy to liberate their cities and prevent the retreating Germans from carrying out their threat of leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

From the end of September until the middle of October, that is until the front was stabilised and consolidated at Cassino, the much over-looked “Revolt of the South” increased in tempo, blazed up more and more fiercely until it culminated in the Four Day of Naples (28 September – 1 October) and the Three Days of Lanciano (4-6 October). Other names though must not be forgotten: Capua, Matera, Santa Maria Capua Vetere. Naples had become the city of more than a hundred raids, some of the heaviest of which – notably that of 5 December 1942 – had caught it by surprise owing to the inadequate warning system, causing thousands upon thousands of casualties. The Neapolitans had undergone such fearful hardships they were in no mood to listen submissively when, on 12 September, the German Governor of the city, Colonel Scholl, ordered all able-bodied between the ages of 18 and 33 to report for service with the labour battalions on 22 September, making it abundantly clear that failure to do so would be followed by direct reprisals. Naples had already had a taste of Scholl’s savagery: one of the first acts on taking the city had been to burn the University to the ground, a flagrant example of sheer vandalism, in addition to which, at his command, scores of soldiers, sailors and civilians, women as well as men, had been summarily executed. The compulsory enrolment was followed on 23 and 24 September by the forced evacuation of certain quarters of the city, as a result of which 200,000 people were rendered homeless.

The Neapolitans had reached the limit of their endurance. During the night of 27 September, they raided those arsenals which had been left unguarded because the Germans held the people of Naples in such contempt that the idea that they might rise had never entered their heads. On 28 September the people suddenly flung themselves upon their formidably-armed oppressors. They opened fire on the Germans with their antiquated rifles, and hurled hand-grenades at their tanks. In the front ranks were the ragamuffins, the sloe-eyes urchins of Naples, who proudly took part in the bitter fighting which raged on the Vomero and from the Via Chiaia to Piazza Nazionale.

On 29 September numbers of patriots banded themselves together and joined in the battle. The fighting on the Vomero reached such a pitch that the Germans were finally compelled to raise the white flag. Scholl, after he had agreed to release 47 hostages he was holding, on condition that his life and those of the officers of his staff be spared, was allowed to withdraw from the Stadium. By 30 September the greater part of the enemy force was retreating from the city, massacring unarmed civilians on the outskirts and carrying out wholesale destruction as it withdrew. At midday on 1 October, the German batteries masked in a wood at Capodimonte bombarded Naples, causing thousands of casualties. As a final act of vengeance, the Nazis set fire to the famous Library which housed a unique collection of archives of medieval life in Southern Italy; all these irreplaceable records were reduced to ashes.

Lanciano, on the other side of the peninsula, seems to have modelled its revolt on that of Naples. Here, too, German arsenals were raided and while the main attack was made as usual by the younger men and boys, the whole population joined in as best it could. At Bellona, 35 kilometres north of Naples, as a reprisal for the killing of one German soldier, 54 civilians were lined up on the edge of the cliff and sprayed with machine-gun bullets till they toppled dead or dying into the void. Kesselring’s army, on its retreat from the south, left behind it a wake of terror and inextinguishable hatred.

The Allied armies arrived on 1 October, in time to succour the less severely wounded. They brought with them the cumbrous apparatus of the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories, prepared at leisure by military bureaucrats in London, Washington and Algiers. Administrative generals were even less inclined to trust Italians than were operational ones. A.M.G.O.T. officers took over the whole business of food supply, drainage, health, currency supply, traffic control and the maintenance of public order: only gradually did A.M.G.O.T. take in; Italians were looking forward to a chance to govern themselves again, had not loved dictatorship much, and were trying to shed their bureaucracy, not longing to be directed – either by it or by anybody else’s.

On 20 October 1943 Edgard Erskine Hume, Colonel, General Staff Corps, United State Army, Chief of Military Government, reporting to The Hon. Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury, c/o Lieut. General Mark W. Clark, U.S.A., Headquarters, Fifth Army, Naples, wrote:

“In compliance with your request I give you herewith a brief report of acts of German cruelty and wanton destruction committed in Naples, chiefly during the three weeks before our capture of the city.

The things that I list were unnecessary from any military point of view.

Offences against the city as a whole

Water supply: … The Germans had blown up the main aqueduct in seven places and all of the reservoirs save one had been drained. … The Germans were well aware that there was ample facility for bringing in water for the troops, as was done in the desert campaign, so that this destruction of the city supply was an act of cruelty against civilians, young and old. … The water mains in many parts of Naples were deliberately cut.

Sewage System: The pumping facilities of the sewage disposal system of Naples were destroyed. …

Electricity Light and Power Systems: Naples was in darkness when we took over. The Germans had destroyed both the generators of the current and likewise the transformers. …

Transportation System: The street car system was wholly out of commission both because the electric current had been cut off (see above) and because the Germans carried away or destroyed the greater part of the rolling stock. … The Germans carried away every automobile, both passenger and truck, that they could find. In some instances, they took only the tires and destroyed or abandoned the bodies of the cars. Ambulances and fire-fighting vehicles were not spared.

Communication Systems: The telegraph lines were put out of commission. The main telephone exchange was blown up.

Demolition of Hotels: The group of magnificent hotels along the via Partenope, facing Vesuvius, used to be one of the outstanding groups of such institutions in the world. Such names as the Excelsior, Vesuvio, Santa Lucia, Royal etc., are known to travellers everywhere.

Blocking of Tunnels: There are a number of tunnels in Naples built to give ready access from one quarter to another at saving of much hill climbing. These were blown up.

Demolition of Flour Mills: … all of the large mills were wrecked by the Germans.

Destruction of the University of Naples and of it Famous Libraries: The University of Naples is one of the oldest and most famous in existence. The library of the Royal Society of Naples was put to the torch on 12 September, a little more than a fortnight before we took the city. Several witnesses agree that the notorious Col. Scholl, Commander of German troops garrisoned in Naples, arrived in person when the work was finished and read a proclamation in German and Italian announcing that the university had been wrecked as punishment to Naples.

Continued tomorrow …

Previous instalment

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  1. Joseph Carli

    Another wonderful episode of those desperate times..a bloody good read..

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