The War in Italy, 1944-1945: A Reappraisal

On 4th June, 1944, Rome was the first European capital to fall to the Allies, after what had been the biggest battle they had fought up to that point.  More men, more guns, more equipment.  More planes and more bombs. All had been flung against a formidable defensive line; and despite dogged resistance, the mighty Allied battering ram had eventually prevailed with a crushing victory that had been hailed all around the free world.

But just two days later, came the Normandy landings and Italy, the principal front for so long, was immediately relegated.  Like the England cricket team the moment the new Premiership season begins, the campaign in Italy became secondary, and no longer the great headline maker it had once been.

In many ways that is not so surprising.  Over the years we have tended to focus on the events of the war that are closer to home: Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, for example; D-Day and Arnhem.  Alamein is, perhaps, an exception, but registers only because it was the first British land victory of the war. 

And, of course, we naturally drawn more to our own experience of than those of others – we see this every day in the way we cover news from around the world.  Consequently, Anglophone historians have tended to examine the war in Italy in exactly the same way they would, say, the North African campaign, with its vast areas of desert and sparse population. The fact that Italy is a western European country full of millions of people makes no difference to the way in which historians examine the campaign.  The thousands of Italian villages and towns that were utterly destroyed, and the many millions of civilians that were displaced, killed or wounded, barely register a mention.  It is as though they did not exist at all.

This was underlined to me a few years ago, when I came across a tiny article in the paper that mentioned a massacre that had taken place in Italy during the war.  President Rau of Germany was visiting the country and had formally apologised for the massacre at Marzabotto.  One of the survivors of the massacre had been quoted for the piece and mentioned seeing a baby ‘tossed on a bayonet.’  It sounded absolutely horrific and I was shocked.  I was also shocked that I’d never heard of it, and yet, as I soon discovered, the Massacre at Marzabotton, between the 29 September and 1 October 1944, was the single worst German massacre outside the death camps in Western Europe.

But we should know about these things.  And we should look at the war in Italy with a broader perspective because by examining it from all sides and all angles our understanding as to why events happened becomes much clearer. 

The war in Italy was brutal in the extreme, and is a depressing subject to study.  But it is fascinating too, on many levels.  In terms of human drama, it is a compelling story: more than twenty nationalities fighting a highly attritional, relentlessly grim war with more than just passing similarities to the warfare of the Western Front in the First World.  It was also deeply unpleasant for those living there too, who found themselves caught up in the typhoon of steel that was unleashed, and who became embroiled in what was essentially a civil war, with all the accompanying viciousness and brutality. On a higher, strategical and tactical level, the campaign also poses a number of very interesting conundrums – and all this in a land of rare beauty and antiquity, the land of the Renaissance and the centre of the Catholic world.  And finally, the war in Italy reveals a number of lessons that could and should be learnt for future generations; for in the war in Italy, it is possible to see uncanny similarities with the Coalition Forces’ experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the recent war in Lebanon.
Italy’s geography is key to gaining an understanding of the campaign.  It is a truly terrible place to try and fight a war – or rather, it is a truly terrible place to attack.  Running down through most of the leg of Italy is a long and inhospitable ridge of mountains, namely the Apennines.  Briefly, in the northeast of the country as the mountains veer to the west, there is the flat plain of the Po Valley, but the mountains – this time the Alps – rise once more, and this time to even greater heights. Here are the Apennines south of Bologna, through which the fighting passed.  I think the problems posed are self-evident.  And here is the country around Cassino, looking south from Castle Hill, the Liri Valley in front.  And here again are the Apennines, again in the area between Florence and Bologna. And in mountains, rivers form, and run down towards the sea, in this case flowing predominantly east-west, or west-east  – in other words, across the main line of the Allied thrust. And even when they did finally reach the plains of the north, they still had to get across the formidable River Po.

Not only did the Allies know all this before they invaded, they had had enough experience of fighting the Germans to know that not only did Germany have the most progressive attacking troops in the world, they were also masters of defence.

So why did the Allies invade Italy?

Well, Italy had never been part of the long-term plan – rather, strategy in the Mediterranean had developed as changing events presented themselves.  I’m going to go back a bit.  The United States only entered the war in December 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  In Washington, a hastily planned conference was organised between Britain and America in which it was agreed they would adopt a Europe-first policy, rather than Japan-first.  This was because both camps recognised that the most pressing need was to keep the Soviet Union in the war.  If Russia fell, Germany would not only have far more troops and war material with which to fight Britain and America, she also have the supplies of oil and other raw materials so necessary for her war effort.  It was for these raw materials rather than any other factor that had persuaded Hitler to invade the Soviet Union: Britain and the United States were always seen as the most dangerous enemy, not Russia.

At the end of 1941, Russia’s chances of survival looked slim, and so it was agreed that Britain and America would have to act quickly.  They would continue bombing Germany, and would begin the immediate build-up of troops in Britain from which they could launch a cross-Channel invasion, hopefully in 1942.

It soon became apparent that this was never going to happen.  The US may have had 13 million in uniform by the war’s end, but at the time of the Washington Conference this figure was little more than 400,000.  They were woefully behind the times and seriously underdeveloped.  They would, of course, increase the size of their Armed Forces exponentially, but not fast enough for a cross-Channel invasion in 1942 – or 1943 as it turned out.

But Roosevelt had promised the Russians a second front in 1942 and also knew that Americans would not tolerate a long period of apparent inactivity.  It was at this point that Churchill began pressing the idea of invading Northwest Africa upon the American president.  Britain already had considerable forces there and in the Middle East. With all North Africa conquered, they could open up the Mediterranean sea lanes and perhaps even attack the underbelly of Europe at its softest point.  The opportunities were many and potentially far-reaching.  This line of Churchill’s, written in a memorandum to his Chiefs of Staff on 24 October 1942, has become one of the greatest misquotes of all time.  He never thought the underbelly of Europe was soft at all.  But he did realise that the Allies had, through circumstance, got themselves into a position of strength in the Mediterranean.  

Roosevelt was persuaded to launch a second front in Northwest Africa but it was not popular amongst his senior commanders, who believed that involvement in the Mediterranean was leading them away from the original plan, namely a cross-Channel invasion of France.  In fact, Britain and American approached strategy from completely different points of view. US policy was to decide on where the strike should take place – ie Northern France – and then work towards that goal.  The British policy was build up the required strength then make the decision on where to attack as events unfurled – in other words, the American approach was pre-meditated, the British opportunistic – and Churchill, especially, was the arch-opportunist. 

By the summer of 1943, it was the British approach that prevailed, as they repeatedly out-manoeuvred the Americans at strategy talks.  Never was this more the case than at Casablanca in January 1943, when the Americans were persuaded that after the conquest of North Africa, the next move should be the seaborne invasion of Sicily.

The reasons for invading Sicily were fourfold: one, to knock Italy out of the war.  Two, to open up the Mediterranean – with its shipping routes and access to the Suez canal – even further.  Three, following the campaign in North Africa there were considerable Allied forces in the Mediterranean.  There was neither time nor shipping to transfer these troops back to Britain in time for a cross-Channel invasion in 1943, so unless they were to be kept idle until the summer of 1944, some use needed to made for them in the Mediterranean.  Four, despite the improving situation in the Soviet Union, Britain and America needed to do everything they could to help the Russians – and in 1943, the Mediterranean was the only place they could realistically bring Germany to battle.

Without Italy, Germany would have to divert considerable amounts of troops and war materiel to the Mediterranean, first by occupying Italy itself, and second by replacing the half million Italian troops in Greece and the Balkans.  With Germany already severely stretched in Northwest Europe, all of France, and, of course, Russia, this was something they could ill afford to do.  As Churchill persuasively argued, this kind of dispersal of German forces was precisely what was needed before the Allies attempted a cross-Channel invasion of France.
But even as the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943, no firm decision had been made about whether to then invade mainland Italy as well.  The British were all for it, because they felt that it was the best way to encourage the growing resistance to Germany developing in the Balkans, because by taking southern Italy they would gain important airfields from which they could further bomb Germany; and because they believed that by engaging the Germans in battle they would further enhance the prospects of success when the Allies made their cross-Channel invasion in 1944.  For Britain there were also deep emotional reasons for capturing Rome – a victory that could be seen as a culmination of Britain’s war in the Mediterranean.  And there was still the need to keep the substantial forces in the Mediterranean busy. 
Hitler – against the wishes of the German High Command – played entirely into Allied hands, and insisted not only in pouring troops into Italy, but into the Aegean and Balkans as well with the now usual orders that not a yard of ground was to be given up. 

And so began a long and bloody attritional war that was to cause more casualties than any other theatre in the west.

Throughout the winter of 1943-1944, the Allies found themselves battling not only against the excellent defensive actions of the Germans, but also against the topography and the weather.  There was only one real route to Rome and that was up the Liri Valley, along Route 6 – the Via Casilina.  From the German point of view, the best and key defensive position was at Cassino, with Monte Cassino towering above, so after eventually conceding the Allied landings at Salerno south of Naples, they hastily retreated to a prepared defensive line – the Gustav Line – that ran across the leg of Italy and which had Cassino as its most formidable obstacle.  The valley was flooded, making it impassable to vehicles, including tanks, and both the valley and mountains were seething with concrete bunkers, machine gun and mortar posts, mines, gun emplacements and so on.  One only has to go to Cassino and gaze up at Monte Cassino and Monte Cairo looming behind it to realise what a complete nightmare it must have been for any attacking troops.  In battle, height has always, throughout the long history of warfare, been a tremendous advantage in battle.

A plan was hatched to outflank the Gustav Line, but the seaborne landing at Anzio was hastily planned and of insufficient size, so that instead of relieving the pressure at Cassino, the Allies were forced to launch another offensive at Cassino to relieve the pressure at Anzio. 

But at no point did the Allies attempt to attack with the full force of their Army Group, but rather with just a few divisions at a time.  Nor did they use their air superiority to great effect: the pulverisation of both the ancient Benedictine Monastery at Cassino and the town itself had much the same effect as the recent Israeli bombing of Palestine – it caused a great deal of destruction, gained worldwide criticism, and did little more than improve enemy defences.   Here are two pictures: before.  And after. As you can see, the devastation is unbelievable.  It reminds me of the very worst pictures of Passchendaele. 

It was of great frustration, but despite the enormous technological advancements of the 20th century, the Allied commanders had to concede that in Italy, fighting could only really take place during the campaigning season of old – the summer months.

Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies in Italy was General Sir Harold Alexander, the victorious general in both North Africa and Sicily.  He was not a blatant self-publicist like Montgomery or Patton and his reputation has somewhat diminished, but I think he was an excellent commander who got a lot more right than he got wrong, and was often operating in incredibly difficult circumstances.

Under his command were two Armies, the predominantly British Eighth Army under General Sir Oliver Leese, and the predominantly American Fifth Army under General Mark Clark. They also had substantial air forces and also not inconsiderable naval forces they could call on too.  Alexander’s plan was to make a final strike for Rome at the beginning of May, by which time it was hoped the weather would have improved and the ground dried out.  Planning for this took place all spring, and involved elaborate deception plans and building up the biggest army the Allies had yet assembled.  The strike would come in two punches: the first by massed troops along the front line from Cassino to the coast, and then, once the Gustav Line had been broken, VI Corps at Anzio, would break out along the flat valley that ran between the bridgehead and Valmontone.

Battles never ever go according to plan in detail, but Operation DIADEM, as Alexander called his offensive, did broadly go as he had envisioned.  The Gustav Line was broken, first by the French using predominantly native North Africa mountain troops, then with Eighth Army up through the Liri Valley.  Progress seemed slow at the time, but in fact, was about as fast as Alex and his staff had predicted.  One of the big problems was clearing the enormous numbers of minefields, blown roads and bridges, piles of rubble, booby traps and other defences and crossing endless rivers  and anti-tank ditches.  One sapper I know, a man called Ted Wyke-Smith, made 26 Bailey bridges in 28 days.  For the Germans, retreat was in fact made simpler because they had so few vehicles by this time and correspondingly less equipment. When the Allies followed in pursuit they were like a long line of cars and trucks waiting at a traffic light – they could only get going once the first few had gone.  Furthermore, every tank, truck and jeep had to be funnelled through a small number of bailey bridges, which necessarily had to built away from main roads where the Germans were least expecting it.  So no wonder it took time.

The real controversy, however, came with Mark Clark’s handling of VI Corps breaking out of Anzio.  Alex gave him specific instructions to cut Highway 6 – the Via Casilina – at Valmontone and to push on beyond to cut of the retreating German Tenth Army.  He did send a portion of his forces towards Valmontone, but diverted most of his force here through the Alban Hills.  The argument ever since has been that in doing so he allowed the Germans to escape – and so turned a potential annihilation of the enemy into merely a big victory instead.

Clark’s arrogance, Anglophobia and vainglorious desire to capture Rome before D-Day in Normandy has normally been given as the reason for his decision, but I’m not so sure.  In his diaries and post-war interviews he repeatedly talks about the threat to his flanks from making a thrust to Valmontone. Clark certainly had belief in his own abilities as a commander but there is no question that he also had a massive chip on his shoulder about his relative inexperience as a battlefield commander, especially when compared with a number of British and Commonwealth commanders subordinate to him, but who had far greater experience.  This is not the same as Anglophobia, and like Patton, who has also been accused of being anti-British, Clark criticised American commanders every bit as much as British or those from other nationalities.  He was certainly proud of his Fifth Army, which he had personally created and trained in North Africa, and that, I think, is entirely understandable.

But he had taken some criticism for being within an inch of being forced back into sea during the initial landings at Salerno and for the failed First Battle of Cassino.  What Clark simply could not countenance was suffering a set-back. If he attacked towards Valmontone and then found his forces were stalled by an attack on his flank and rear, it would have been disastrous.  Furthermore, having reached that part of the front, he felt certain that they would not achieve much by pushing eastwards. The Americans, highly mobilised, would have struggled in the valley and mountains to cut off the retreating German Tenth Army in time.  Personally, having been to that part of Italy, I’m fairly sure he was right.

So instead, he sent only a limited force towards Valmontone and attacked with the rest of the Corps up through the Alban Hills, where they met stiff opposition from the German Fourteenth Army – opposition that might – and I admit, might – have caused him problems had he not turned to confront them.  As it was, he defeated them in the Alban Hills and took Rome on 4 June.

Alexander criticised Clark for disobeying his order to push on full-throttle to Valmontone in his post-war memoirs, but I could find no record of any criticism at the time – not in Leese’s papers, nor Kirkman’s the British  XIII Corps commander, nor in any of Alexander’s of his staff’s correspondence with Clark and Fifth Army.  We will never know what would have happened had Clark stuck to the original plan, but I do think there is a better explaining for how his mind was working other than pure hubris.

With Rome taken, the momentum was entirely with the Allies.  The German forces – both 10th and 14th Armies, were a disorganised rabble, hastily hurrying north to the next main defensive line.  True, neither had been annihilated, but both were now in tatters and Italy was there for the taking.

Unfortunately, America had only agreed to an invasion of Italy on the condition that once Rome fell, large number of troops, ships and air forces would be diverted to an invasion of Southern France in support of the Normandy landings.  Churchill, the British Chiefs of Staff, Alexander and Clark all repeatedly pleaded with Roosevelt and the American Chiefs to abandon this plan and let the Italian campaign continue at full strength.

But the United States were the dominant partner now; furthermore, Stalin sided with Roosevelt – understandably, bearing in mind his post-war designs on Eastern Europe.  Churchill was trumped, and so the calculated, pre-meditated plan prevailed, rather than the opportunistic one so favoured by the British.  Alexander was stripped of some of his best divisions, including the French mountain troops, while the Germans were reinforced, and suddenly all the momentum had gone.  To my mind, this was a truly terrible decision.  The subsequent invasion of Southern France was almost unopposed, while Allied victory in Italy could have been decisive, would have helped the Normandy invasion just as much, and could have safeguarded Austria and much of Eastern Europe from ending up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

As it was, Alexander now knew he had until the end of  September at the very latest to get beat the Germans in Italy.  After that the weather would be too much of a hindrance.  The problem was that German delaying actions through June and July meant he was not ready to attack the next great defensive barrier until late August. And the Gothic Line was every bit as tough a nut as the Gustav Line – only now he had fewer troops at his disposal with which to break it.

The Allies so nearly did it – but not quite.  Operations had to be halted until the spring.  By April 1945, Alexander’s forces had been depleted further – several divisions had been sent to Greece, for example – and he was forced to use Brazilians and Italian partisan brigades to make up the numbers.  This time, the Allies finally prevailed in what was truly a remarkable victory.  This time the Allies only just had parity of numbers of men – with Brazilians and Partisans filling the gaps in the line.  In contrast, it’s worth bearing in mind that in Normandy, no major attack would be made unless they had an advantage of 4:1. And in support of Clark, it was really his show, not Alexander’s who had been promoted to Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean.  Italy was the complete victory for the Allies after all – the surrender came on May 2, five days before the surrender was signed that ended the war in the west.

And by that time, everyone involved was very, very tired indeed.  I think this Bill Mauldin cartoon captures it perfectly.

Despite the brief surges forward of the summer and autumn of 1944, the Italian campaign was, then, largely attritional, rather like that of the First World War – and I think all of us here probably have a fairly clear picture of what that was like.  The troops spent their time in foxholes, bunkers and dug-outs, being shelled and mortared and shot at.  The Allies had far greater fire power and the advantage of air superiority, but were always having to attack when the Germans had geographical advantage, ie, usually uphill.

I have travelled a great deal around Italy, and certainly it’s easy to believe that the country is basically one mountain after another, and certainly I have particular sympathy for all those who had to fight there.  Numerous veterans I have spoken to talk about the demoralising effect that had.  And, of course, after D-Day, they knew they had become a secondary theatre.  Not surprisingly, more troops deserted in Italy than any other theatre.  By the end seventeen different nationalities were involved on the Allied side including Poles, who already knew there would be no Poland to go home to when it was all over. Veterans talk of the misery of endless rain and mud, the frustration of never seeming to get anywhere, and of the tremendous number of casualties.

For the attackers there was always one more mountain, one more ridge, and for long periods in simply terrible, wet, freezing conditions. Even when they got there, there would be mines and booby traps and blown bridges.  And of course this was absolutely exhausting, mentally and physically.  As well as high levels of desertion there were also very high levels ‘combat fatigue’, what the Tommies called going ‘bomb happy.’  Really, it’s no wonder.

For the Germans there was the never-ending menace from the ‘jabos’ – the Allied fighter-bombers who would dive over them, dropping bombs and strafing them with machine-gun fire.  At Cassino and along the Gothic Line, especially, the stench of death was never far away.  One German paratrooper told me of the large numbers of dead just left to rot on the battlefield at Cassino.  He never went to sleep at night for fear of being attacked in the night by a patrol of Gurkhas – fierce mountain warriors who delighted in chopping off German heads with their kukris. 

My starting point for studying the war has been the experience of war – the personal experience of the soldiers, airmen, sailors and so on and what it was actually like to live through such a time that is still, despite recent and current conflicts, an alien one to the majority of us. 

But this has developed somewhat over the years.  Now it is the behaviour of men – and women – that also interests me.  Why do people respond in the way they do to the circumstances in which they find themselves?

For most of the soldiers in Italy, the war was both highly personal and also impersonal.  What I mean by that is this: put young men in uniform and attach them to units with a name and sense of identity and they very quickly adopt the instincts of animals in a pack.  Their world is one of the ten-man section, the platoon and the company.  Most are young, unworldly, and callow.  They fight because their mates are fighting and because they are told to do so.  For the vast majority, survival is the key – simply doing what they have to and trying their best to come out the other side in one piece. In that sense it is highly personal and close. 

But equally, they care little about the surrounding countryside and the people who live in it; these are something impersonal and non-emotional.  It is why the international troops in Italy had few regrets about the destroyed villages, or lost little sleep when a number of Italians, hiding in a cave because their homes had been destroyed, were mistakenly shelled and killed.  It is why troops took food and raided wine cellars.  This was not stealing; this was survival.  Moreover, the attitude of many troops in Italy, whether Allied or German was that the Italians had only themselves to blame: to the Allies they were a weak and mistrusted former enemy; to the Germans, they were a weak and mistrusted former ally who had stabbed them in the back.  Only when troops were able to stay put in one place for any time, and come to know the local people, did the Italians around them evolve into real human beings.

Most Italians were caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea.  In July, before Sicily had been lost, Mussolini, the Italian Fascist dictator, had been deposed.  For 45 days, King Vittorio Emmanuel III and Marshal Badoglio took political and military control and began negotiations with the Allies.  The armistice was announced on September 8, 1943, but with German troops bearing down on Rome, the country was quickly occupied and both the King and Badoglio fled to the south.

The Italian armed forces – indeed the whole country – was suddenly rudderless.  Germany had a dim view of most Italian servicemen’s fighting abilities and so insisted on disarmament.  Instead, they intended to use these Italians as manual workers both in Italy and Germany.  In the hiatus, many Italian servicemen simply walked out of their barracks and went home.  Those who found themselves trapped in the Aegean were treated brutally – it was during this time that more than 9,000 Italian troops were massacred on Cephalonia, for example.

Meanwhile, Mussolini had been held a prisoner by Badoglio, but on 12 September was sprung from captivity in the Gran Sasso mountains by an elite squad of German troops and whisked away for meetings with Hitler.  The Fuhrer had no intention of wasting valuable resources entirely governing Italy and so persuaded Mussolini to form a new Neo-Fascist Government, the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, better known as the RSI. 
Over the last year I have carried out a number of interviews in Italy, but there was one week last November that particularly reflected the myriad views and stances taken by different Italians after the Armistice.  

First on the list was Elena Curti, illegitimate daughter of Il Duce himself, Benito Mussolini.  A raging storm billowed outside her house in northern Lazio the day I visited her, but she had much to say and I barely noticed the gales as she recounted her life story.  Still striking, fiercely intelligent, and with an extraordinary memory, she spent her troubled childhood with little idea that Mussolini was, indeed, her father.  Yet by the time the Duce was heading up the puppet Neo-Fascist Government, the truth had been revealed to her and she became increasingly well-acquainted with him and even closely attached to her real father.  Throughout 1944 and right up until the end of the war, she was working for the RSI and giving Mussolini regular fortnightly intelligence reports, operating as a kind of ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground.  Attractive, bright, well-connected and popular amongst the junior Italian officers of the RSI, Elena provided a unique insight into the mood, morale and motives of the Fascist Republic, as well as of Mussolini and also of Alessandro Pavolini, the General Secretary of the Fascist Party, with whom, she admitted, she was ‘a little bit in love.’ 

Later in the week, I met up with some former members of the Giovani Fascisti.  At the end of the war, when Fascism was outlawed, the veterans of the Giovani Fascisti found they had no way of publicly expressing the solidarity they felt for one another.  There could be no marching with banners such as the former Partisans and Royalist troops were able to do.  Fortunately for them, one of their old battalion commanders, Fulvio Balisti, left them his farmhouse when he died, and now, once a month, the veterans gather there to spend time in each others’ company and to reminisce.  Politics are not allowed to be discussed in any shape or form at these gatherings, but they are able to remember their fighting days in North Africa and beyond.

When I joined them for one such weekend, it was William Cremonini who occupied most of my time.  He had joined the Giovani Fascisti as soon as he could in 1940.  His family had always been supporters of Mussolini, and like many of his friends, had believed the war was justified, noble and exciting; he wanted to fight for the glory of Italy.  Throughout the North African campaign the Young Fascists repeatedly proved their tenacity and fighting ability and William was no exception.  Wounded in Tunisia right at the very end of the campaign, he was fortunate to be on the last ship of wounded men leaving Africa for Italy and so survived the mass surrender to the Allies in May 1943. He viewed the armistice as a disgrace and had nothing but contempt for its orchestrators, King Victor Emmanuel III and Marshal Badoglio.

Having recovered from his wounds, he consequently had little hesitation in continuing the fight once Mussolini and Germany had established the RSI.  He joined the ‘Bir El Gobi’ Company, an unofficial name for a group of Black Shirts, many of whom had fought in Africa with the Young Fascists: Bir el Gobi had been the scene of the division’s greatest triumph.  In Italy in 1944/45, however, these men were Fascist Militia, picked out to be Pavolini’s bodyguard.   William found himself fighting in defence of Florence, in the mountains south of Piacenza, and in Piedmont.  At the war’s end he was in Bologna, forced to shed his uniform and flee from the vengeful partigiani.

Not everyone who fought on the side of the Fascists considered themselves particularly politically motivated, however, as I soon discovered. One such was Antonio Cucciati, whom I met at his home near Pavia.  During the last year of the war he had been a paratrooper in the Decima MAS, an elite commando division of the Italian Navy.  Despite fighting on the Republican side, Antonio was eager to point out that he never been a Fascist nor had most of those in the Decima MAS.  Indeed, he said, they had tried to come over to the Allies in early 1945 on the condition that they were sent to tackle the threat of insurgency in the north-east of Italy by Tito’s Yugoslav Communist Partisans.  Their offer had been refused, but Antonio made it clear that he had wanted to join the Decima MAS because it was the best military unit in Italy.  He also believed that the armistice in September 1943 had been dishonourable and had brought disgrace upon Italy. ‘When a gentleman starts a war,’ he told me, ‘he fights on one side and should stay on that side.’  Antonio was jovial, good humoured and entertaining company – and refreshingly frank about his experiences. 

On the other hand, there were also those who believed Italy was betraying herself by continuing to fight alongside an occupying power like Germany. The day after seeing Elena Curti, I had headed south back to Rome.  There, in his flat in the hills north of the Tiber, I met Generale Vittorio de’ Castiglioni, who had fought throughout the North African campaign, but who, after the surrender of the Italian forces, had offered his services to the Allies.  Released from his prisoner of war camp in Algeria, he was then, in early 1944, parachuted into Northern Italy as an SOE agent to help organise the growing partigiani bands and to liaise between them and the Allies.

The next day I travelled north, to Piacenza, talking to former Partisans who had fought in the mountains and hills that run from the south of the city to the Ligurian coast.  Although politics played an important part in a number of Partisan bands, the Piacenza partigiani were not especially politically driven.  Of the men I had come to meet, one confessed he had been a Communist, while the other two admitted to having no strong political beliefs, except for a dislike of Fascism.  They showed me a series of gruesome pictures of Partisans that had been executed not by the Germans but by the Fascist Militia, and the Black Brigades.  Pino and Renato had been friends as boys and their families had always been opposed to Fascism.  They had fled to the hills and joined the Partisans because neither wanted to be shipped to Germany as forced labour or to join the New Republican Army.  They believed they had had no choice.  Carlo, on the other hand, had always had communist sympathies and although he had not rushed to take up arms against the Fascists and German occupiers, had witnessed his boss being shot dead by the Black Shirts for being ‘a subversive.’  Fearing for his own life, Carlo also headed to the mountains south of Piacenza.  For these three, living in barns and caves and attacking German and Fascists in the valleys below became their way of life until the very end of the war, when the Partisans, with British Special Force agents to help them, took Piacenza from the retreating Germans.

And there were also plenty who did not fight at all, those who were innocent pawns caught up in a maelstrom of which they had little understanding.  One of the most affecting interviews I have ever done was during that week in November, when I went to visit Pasua Pisa in the mountains near Frosinone, south of Rome.

It was here that the French forces, with the Americans either side of them, paved the way for the Allied breakout of Anzio and the march on Rome. The cosmopolitan and patrician world of General de’ Castiglioni seemed a million miles away as I drove into the tiny country town of Amaseno.   Signora Pisa lived on a farm high in the surrounding mountains.  ‘You’ll never find it,’ several townspeople told me.  ‘It’s very difficult to get to.’  Even so, after repeatedly stopping for directions, I began the long climb up to Monte Rotondo and eventually discovered Signora Pisa’s mountain-top farm.  Her ancient weather-beaten face and headscarf belied a lifetime spent out of doors.  She spoke softly, but what she had to tell was heartbreaking.  The war years had particularly tough.  Most of the men had left, and although by 1944 some had returned, Pasua’s husband was not one of them.  He was a prisoner of war in Canada.  With no father, Leonardo, Pasua’s four year-old son, Leonardo, had become devoted to her own father – the boy’s nonno.  ‘She followed him about as though he was his shadow,’ she said. 

In May 1944, shortly before the Allies captured Rome, Pasua’s tiny isolated farm, on which her family had been farming for generations, found itself caught up in the cross-fire between German and American and French troops.  One day Leonardo discovered an unexploded shell.  Not knowing what it was, he carried it to his grandfather’s house near the farm and there it exploded, killing them both.  Demented with grief, Pasua felt unable to go to the funeral in Amaseno, and so remained at home.  But while the rest of the family were burying her son and father in the town below the mountain, some French colonial troops came into the farmhouse. One of these ‘Goums’ dragged Pasua outside into the yard and brutally raped her. 

Silent tears streamed down her face as she recalled this episode.  Just twenty-three at the time, she had known little about the war, or why it was being fought.  She did not think much of the Germans and even less of the Allies.  She had just wanted her life back.

Chaos and disorder reigned.  Mussolini and his new Republic had no real power; they were little more than Hitler’s stooges, while Marshal Badoglio headed what amounted to a puppet government in the south.  Badoglio resigned and the King abdicated and a new 6-party government was formed, but real authority in the southern half of the country was still held by the Allied Military Government established by Britain and America. 

The situation was further muddied by Germany’s annexation of north-east Italy – the area of Istria around Trieste, which, along with part of Croatia, became the Adriatisches Küstenland, governed like other areas of the Greater German Reich by Gauleiter Friedrich Rainer.  Meanwhile, infiltrating many parts of northern Italy was the underground ‘free’ government known as the Comitato di Liberazione Nationale – or CLN.  Formed from six clandestine anti-fascist political parties including the Christian Democrats and Communists, the CLN worked closely with both the Allies and the various Partisan bands.  Even so, large parts of rural Italy fell under control not of the CLN, but of individual local Partisan bande, who controlled many mountain communities with a roughshod and often violent rule of law. 

Consequently, in large parts of northern Italy, civilians found themselves terribly caught. They supported the Partisans on pain of death, but faced severe retribution if they were seen to be collaborating with the Fascists. Hunger and poverty frequently forced terrible decisions upon them.  Rations were meagre and repeatedly cut as the final act of the war was played out.  Before the Allied capture of Rome, there were even cases of Roman civilians starving to death.  Later, rations of salt and sugar, in particular, were cut so harshly that many struggled to get anything like enough to eat.  Bartering became the common currency, and the Black Market thrived. With the Germans and Fascists offering large rewards for information, the temptations must have been huge; suspicion and recrimination ate away at many families and communities.  

But even south of the front line, life was wretched, and rationing frequently more severe than in the north.  In the south, 75% of her pre-war trains, 85% of her coaches, 90% of her trucks and lorries, and 87.5% of her merchant fleet, had been destroyed by the war. This, for example, is the wreckage of an electric power station destroyed by the Germans as they retreated north. Ruined towns and villages had mostly yet to be rebuilt. Unemployment was high, services were poor and a very high percentage of Italians were living well below the poverty line. Severe illnesses such as typhus and malaria were rife. Vast numbers of children were orphaned.  Here a young girl holds her crying sister, her mother, dead, in the doorway behind.

Vast numbers of women turned to prostitution as a desperate means of survival.  The US Fifth Army Surgeon reckoned that as many as fifty percent of ‘available’ women had some form of venereal disease, caused almost exclusively by prostitution. In October there was serious rioting in Palermo, Sicily.  Bread riots followed in Rome in the beginning of December.  ‘Free’ Italy might have been out of the war, but it was not a happy place.
But at least in the south no-one was being massacred.  There were some 700 separate civilian massacres in Italy at the hands of the Germans and these certainly represent a dark and little-known aspect of the war in the West.

The Marzabotto Massacre certainly remains a largely forgotten episode, despite the 965 men, women and children who were killed.  But not in that small mountainous area of Emilia-Romagna, where wreaths are still placed weekly amongst the ruined churches and villages.

Although now deserted, the high plains beneath Monte Sole were once home to a tightly-knit rural community before the war – and a community that had been kept apart from the rest of the world, with its own dialect, customs and traditions.  Most had assumed it would stay that way forever. 

As elsewhere, however, the people of Monte Sole were helpless against the relentless march of destruction as the war progressed north.  It was their misfortune that by mid-1944 this strange, untouched corner of Italy had become an area of vital strategic importance: either side of the mountains ran important roads and rivers, the gateway to the open plains of the north.  These routes not only supplied the German armies, they also offered the best chance for retreat.

And they also offered the perfect hiding place from which the local band of Partisans, the Stella Rossa, could operate.  Under the command of the charismatic Il Lupo, this band of young Italian resistance fighters wreaked havoc, attacking convoys, derailing trains and even capturing top-secret plans of the defences of the German Gothic Line. 

German impatience with the Partisans grew, and with the Allied lines inching ever closer, Field Marshal Kesselring ordered a detachment of around 1,500 troops to carry out a series of brutal reprisals.  The Partisans were flushed out from their hiding places in the mountains and Lupo killed, while the elderly, women, and children, were rounded up and systematically executed, and the villages largely destroyed.  Many of those who survived those murderous days were raped in the immediate aftermath, or forced into slave-labour until the end of the war. 

Monte Sole has never recovered.  Only the villages at the foot of the hills are lived in now, and the slopes that were terraced and tilled for generations have long since been given over to grass and shrub.  Monte Sole has become a ghost-land.

Cornelia Paselli, for example, was eighteen at the time.  Believing it was the men the Germans were after, her father fled to the summit of Monte Sole, while Cornelia, her mother, her sixteen year-old sister and the twelve year-old twins took shelter in the nearby church of Casaglia.  At 9am, soldiers forced open the door and ordered the 175 sheltering there to move out to the road.  The priest was taken away and shot, while the women and children were marched along the track to the nearby walled cemetery.  There, they were told to go in and line up against the wall.  Confused and terrified, Cornelia and her family watched the Germans wheel in a machinegun and load it with ammunition.  Then a couple of grenades were lobbed towards them.  The blast knocked Cornelia unconscious and when she came to, the machinegun was firing and bodies were piling above her.  She remained there until 4pm that afternoon, drenched in blood, until she heard the Germans leave the vicinity.  Her middle sister was only slightly wounded, but the twins had died in her mother’s arms.  She was still holding them all those hours later: she could not move herself as both her legs had been riddled with bullets.  Cornelia ran to get help, but was forcibly detained in a cellar by some Italians further down the mountain, who were worried for her and their safety.  She only managed to find her sister three days later, by which time her mother had died and her sister been raped.  Her father, who had seen the whole thing from the summit of the mountain, became deranged and was later captured by the Germans.  He died whilst working as a slave labourer a few months later.

Another still living in the area is Francesco Pirini.  He was seventeen and watched from behind a nearby bush as all his family were shot. A young contadino at the time, he had had nothing to do with the Stella Rossa.  His family home in Gardaletta survived – it had been owned by the Pirini since 1770 and he still lives there today.

Gianni Rossi lives in the nearby town of Vado.  He began the Stella Rossa with Il Lupo, and became its second-in-command.  Gianni survived the massacres and made it safely to British lines, even though he was then interrogated as a spy for some time. It was he who captured the documents about the fortifications along the Gothic Line and successfully passed them on to the Allies.  He also saved Lupo’s life when a traitor tried to stab the leader during the night.  When I asked him how he’d felt killing his fellow countrymen, he smiled, then said, ‘They had their dance; I had mine.’  Gianni later fought with the Italian Brigade alongside the British. 

Three further former Partisans are Gastone Scargi, Hector Benassi and Carlo Venturi, who all joined the Stella Rossa, rather than the Fascist Army. But in doing so, they had to destroy all personal their belongings and identification, and had no further contact of any kind with their families.  Gastone Scargi did not see his mother and father again until August 1945 – and in all that time he never once knew whether they were alive or dead.  Even POWs received parcels from home.
While I’ve been researching the war in Italy, I’ve felt it was important to try and understand why so many German troops – both SS and regular Wehrmacht – felt able to line civilians up against a wall and shoot them.

First of all, I realised that conditions for the Germans in Italy were mostly far worse than they were for the Allies.  They had less food, less ammunition and fewer supplies of almost everything.  Franz Maassen, a German veteran I talked to, said that the barrage that marked the opening of the Gothic Line battles was amongst the worst experiences he suffered during the whole war – and this a man who had twice served on the Eastern Front.  Franz, like almost every German veteran I have spoken to or in every German diary or memoir I have looked at, repeatedly talked about the twin problems of the ‘Jabos’ – Allied fighter-bombers – and the Partisan menace.  Allied command of the skies meant that they could move only by night.  When travelling to and from the front there was no respite as there was for the Allies.  When travelling, they might be attacked by planes or ambushed by partisans.  Even when on leave in cities, they might be shot at or blown up by partisan attacks.

Russia, however, undoubtedly plays a key part in understanding the German response to Partisans in Italy.  Most German units in Italy had plentiful numbers of veterans of the Eastern Front sprinkled amongst them – men who would share their experiences – and prejudices.  It has to be remembered that the German people were told that the reason for invading the Soviet Union was to halt the westward spread of Communism, a threat that was painted in much the same way as Nazism was in Britain and America, for eg.  They were also told that Partisans in Italy were all Communist – part of the Red Menace – and most believed this, even though it was far from true.

Franz Maassen is in many ways typical of the German attitude to Partisans.  In Russia he had been involved in a particularly brutal retreat.  Part of a two-man machine-gunner crew, he had been firing at Russian troops one time while his partner, Peter, a theology student, had been feeding the ammunition belt.  After a while they swapped roles but no sooner had they changed over than Peter was hit in the jaw. 

The following day, as Franz was falling back, he came across a burnt-out ambulance. The driver had had his wrists bound with wire and tied to the steering wheel and then had been set on fire.  The four wounded men – one of whom had been Peter – had been laid out in the snow, their skulls smashed in and their penises chopped off and stuffed in their mouths.

As a result of the brutal murder of his friend, Franz developed a deep loathing of Partisans.  His opinions were not improved on his arrival in Italy.  While waiting to be posted to the front line, he was in café in Verona when two partisans burst in and hurled a grenade.  Franz was fine, but as far as he was concerned, Italian partisans and Russian partisans – both Commie scum – were cut from the same cloth, and needed to be eradicated.

Another veteran, this time in the 16th Waffen-SS Panzer Grenadier Division, was similarly damning towards the Italian partisans.  He had discovered a number of his colleagues who had been ambushed, tortured and killed.  He also underlined the strain of coming under attack from an unseen enemy; of not knowing who was a partisan and who was not.  When Germans came to an area like Monte Sole, where the local partisans had been making their lives a misery, and been killing – and on occasion torturing – German troops, they tended not to distinguish between who was actually a partisan and who was not; after all, the Partisans could not exist without the complicity of the local civilian population.  In German eyes, they were guilty by default.

This is not to excuse the behaviour, but it does, I think, make their actions all the more understandable.  It also goes some way to explain some of the brutal treatment of US Marines towards civilians in Iraq.  When you’ve just seen your best friend obliterated in an Iraqi ambush, your respect for them as a people is likely to be dented.

Nor were the Allies blameless.  There was often, especially amongst the Americans, a shoot-first, worry-about-the-consequences later attitude that accounted for untold Italian lives.  One former member of the Black Brigades told me how he was strafed by an American fighter plane on his way north. At that time he hadn’t joined up and was travelling in a cart.  I later mentioned this to an American fighter pilot, who pointed out that anyone travelling by day, on a road, near the front had only themselves to blame.  ‘How the hell can we check when travelling at a more than 300mph and at only a few hundred feet off the ground?  Of course we strafed everything.’

Eric Sevareid, the American NBC journalist was repeatedly taken aback by the murdering of prisoners by troops.  In one town he was with some GIs and saw a German sprawled out on the ground.  When he asked what had happened, the Americans casually told him that he’d been lagging behind and they had got tired off hurrying him up all the time.  On another occasion he witnessed a young private ask his lieutenant what they should do with a number of Italian civilians they’d discovered sheltering in a house.  ‘If you can spare a guard, send them back.  If you can’t, shoot ’em.’ 

The point is, of course, that in all wars terrible things happen.  Soldiers become dehumanised, and whenever wars are fought amongst a civilian population, it always brings an extra level of misery, as we are witnessing in Iraq and Afghanistan and as we have seen recently in Lebanon.  Tellingly, Franz Maassen said to me as I was leaving, ‘You know, it is only really after I came home from the war that I began to feel human again.’

2 replies

    Your comments on “The War in Italy, 1944-1945: A Reappraisal” I found most intriguing. I had long been aware of the “Germany First” strategy that Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed upon at their first wartime meeting in Washington in December 1941. But I had always felt that Churchill believed that Italy (the less secure of the Axis Powers – witness its loss of Abyssinia and Italian East Africa & Somaliland to British Forces in 1941) wouldn’t be a ‘hard nut’ to crack and offered a quicker way to Germany.

    I also had the feeling that little thought was given to Italy’s topography as a possible obstacle to an Allied advance via North Africa and Sicily. I’m glad to see that more attention is now being paid to this aspect of the Second World War. One of my uncles on my father’s side of the family had served in Italy as an officer in the U.S. 92nd Infantry (“Buffalo”) Division. He commanded a heavy weapons unit in the 370th Regimental Combat Team.

    I don’t know a great deal about my uncle’s combat service. But I do know that he was decorated for bravery at least twice (he showed me his Bronze Star when I was a teenager). From what my uncle told me, he had gone up the line (i.e. “rushed the enemy”) 37 times and had been wounded on one of those occasions. That came as a surprise to me, because I did not know that my uncle had been wounded in combat. Anyway, I guess it was a light wound, because my uncle continued to fight in Italy til the German surrender there in early May 1945. By that time, he had been promoted from second lieutenant to captain.

    My uncle stayed in the Army after the war, served occupation duty in Japan in the late 1940s, earned his jump badge as a paratrooper, commanded troops in South Korea, and retired as a full Colonel.

    Sadly, he died of cancer last December and is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was a remarkable man in so many ways, not just for his military service.


    Your comments on “The War in Italy, 1944-1945: A Reappraisal” I found most intriguing. I had long been aware of the “Germany First” strategy that Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed upon at their first wartime meeting in Washington in December 1941. But I had always felt that Churchill believed that Italy (the weak link of the Axis Powers – witness its loss of Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland to British Forces in 1941) wouldn’t be a ‘hard nut’ to crack and offered a quicker way to Germany.

    I also had the feeling that little thought was given to Italy’s topography as a possible obstacle to an Allied advance via North Africa and Sicily. I’m glad to see that more attention is now being paid to this aspect of the Second World War. One of my uncles on my father’s side of the family had served in Italy as an officer in the U.S. 92nd Infantry (”Buffalo”) Division. He commanded a heavy weapons unit in the 370th Regimental Combat Team.

    I don’t know a great deal about my uncle’s combat service. But I do know that he was decorated for bravery at least twice (he showed me his Bronze Star when I was a teenager). From what my uncle told me, he had gone up the line (i.e. “rushed the enemy”) 37 times and had been wounded on one of those occasions. That came as a surprise to me, because I did not know that my uncle had been wounded in combat. Anyway, I guess it was a light wound, because my uncle continued to fight in Italy til the German surrender there in early May 1945. By that time, he had been promoted from second lieutenant to captain.

    My uncle stayed in the Army after the war, served occupation duty in Japan in the late 1940s, earned his jump badge as a paratrooper, commanded troops in West Germany and South Korea, and retired as a full Colonel.

    Sadly, he died of cancer last December and is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was a remarkable man in so many ways, not just for his military service.

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