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1943-45  World War II in Italy

 

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Link to march of thousands of Bersaglieri veterans to Celebrate the 60th Anniversary Liberation of Florence in 1945

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In World War I Italy had been on the winning side, but in 1940 Mussolini and the Italian King tragically decided to (1) join up (2) with  the losers.  Over 2.5 million Italian troops joined the Axis war effort in North Africa (where, for example, there were many more Italian than German troops in the Western Desert), the Balkans (pretty much all Italian) and the Russian advance (where Italian Alpini troops hung in to their positions for much longer than many of their fellow Germans).

 

                  

 

Following their victory in North Africa, the Allies landed in Sicily on 10 July 1943.  The Italians overthrew Mussolini and replaced him with the elderly General Badoglio on 25 July 1943.  At that stage there were very few German troops in Italy, and their commander, General Kesselring, had no plan B for reinforcements. 

 

The new Italian government vacillated and argued about surrender policy in true Italian style. The Italian hating British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden (later of Suez invasion fiasco fame), made things more difficult by insisting that the only option to be given to the Italians was a humiliating unconditional surrender.  An offer by General Eisenhower to secure the then undefended Rome airfields with the US 82nd Airborne Division was refused by the new Italian government, a decision with horrendous consequences for millions of Italians. 

 

Forty five days later it was too late  ........ read the rest of this sad, sad story

 

 

    

 

"War in Val D'Orcia"

one of the best WWII in Italy books, has finally been given  a decent cover design!

 

 

 

 

 

22 May 2005, and the present and past Riflemen and Women  of the Italian Bersagliere Regiments of Central and Northern Italy paraded through Florence with literally thousands of brass instruments to mark the 60th anniversary of its liberation in WW II

 

More Photos from the Parade

 

 

In earlier months each of the towns along the route of the advancing allied forces celebrated their own liberations.  This poster was in San Gimignano

 

The actual liberations (including Florence) were in 1944 .... bit of an Italian puzzle that .....

 

The region around Arezzo was the subject of some terrible German reprisal massacres.

 

 

 

 

 

"To Gateways of Florence" by Stefano Fusi

 

A bit further west the contadini of Castellina in Chianti got to know the New Zealanders who were the forward force clearing out the Germans from their their.  The New Zealand engineers were fondly remembered for restoring the facade of the Castellina church, which had suffered badly when the town's north gate (to which it was attached) was knocked down to make room for German tanks.

 

 

British troops of the 8th Army greeted at the liberation of Arezzo in mid 1944

 

 

 

More photos from Arezzo and the Piero Della Francesca Trail

 

 

A bit further east, the Piero della Francesca town of Sansepolcro escaped artillery damage from the British 8th Army because the battery commander had read Aldous Huxley's essay - "The Best Picture in the World" - before the war.  The battery commander's name was Anthony Clarke.  He died in the early 1980s and to this day there is a Via A.Clarke in Sansepolcro to commemorate his memory. 

 

 

 Buy from Amazon USA     Buy from Amazon UK

 

Link to Aldous Huxley's  essay "The Best Picture in the World"

 

 

Around Siena it was a moot point as to which were the worst - the Germans or the Free French from Morocco who replaced them.  So animal was the behaviour of the Moroccan forces (above and above right with lioness mascot and below right marching through the Campo to celebrate Bastille Day - 14 July 1944) that they were "sent home" after the victory parades in Siena and did not get the chance to "sample" Florence. 

 

 

Generals Juin (Fr), Alexander (UK) and Clark (USA) in the Siena Campo for the Bastille Day parade on 14 July 1944

 

The black and white photos from Siena were the work of French war photographers and are taken from the coffee table book shown below.

 

 

Link to Paradoxplace Siena Pages

 

 

 

On the old Via Cassia and visible from the 4-Coursie motorway from Florence to Siena, the 70 acre US WW II Cemetery on the banks of the river Greve is framed by the beautiful trees and hills of Chianti.   It contains 4,402 headstones guarding the remains of some of the young American soldiers who fell in the WW II battles after the fall of Rome, and tablets with the names of a further 1409 who rest in unknown places.  A very moving reminder of the terrible toll of war.  How terrible for Diego di Francesco that the war in Italy ended on 2 May 1945, just ten days after his death.

 

 

 

 

World War II in Italy - Books and more Photographs

 

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A "Must Read" - see bottom of page.

 

Nominated (when, by whom and in what is not known, but it was justified!) as one of the top ten books to come out of WWII and certainly another "Must Read"!

 

Another Norman Lewis gem - learn how it took the British forces weeks of heavy fighting to capture the East side of Sicily, whereas US forces took the West side quickly and with hardly any casualties in return for effectively handing over on-going control of Sicily to the Mafia.

 

 

The third of our "Must Read" books 

 

               
   

 

 

Travel Guide to World War II Sites in Italy.

 

"a guidebook designed to complement standard guides to Italy, which rarely cover World War II sites."

 

 

 

 

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

photo from "Italy's Sorrow" - see below

 

 

 

 

 

General "Smiling Albert" Kesselring - German commander in Italy with policies which led to the execution of hundreds of innocent unarmed Italian civilians.  He was sentenced to death after a British war crimes trial in Venice, but was spared after the intervention inter alia of Churchill, Alexander, and Leese who thought he was a decent fellow.  Several million Italians knew otherwise.  He was released on medical grounds in 1952, and died in 1960 aged 74.

 

 

Back to W W I

 

 

  

 

 

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Difficult to find - we bought our copy from BM bookshop in Florence.

 

 

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The black and white photos from Siena (shown above) were the work of French war photographers and are taken from this Italian coffee table book.

 

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Thanks to Richard Nelson for bringing these two remarkable books to our notice.

 

 

 

 

 

And in fiction ......

 

 

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Regrettably out of print long ago, but if you ever see it around second hand make sure you grab it (why? just read the reviews on Amazon USA!)

 

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(continued from above) ..... German forces had poured over the Brenner pass and established themselves in Central and Southern Italy.  The Italians signed an armistice with the Allies on 8 September 1943, but the very next day King, Prime Minister and Government fled Rome and the Italian army disintegrated.  Most of the army in Italy were taken prisoner by the Germans, who also reimprisoned Allied POWs who for some odd reason had been advised by their own commanders not to escape during the interregnum. 

 

Germany had declared war on Italy, and Hitler issued orders that any Italian troops who fought against the Germans and subsequently surrendered should be executed.  These orders were subsequently carried out in several places, and literally thousands of unarmed Italian soldiers were shot dead.  Richard Lamb's book details these and other barely believable atrocities, and the way in which those responsible often escaped justice with the help of misguided allied commanders.  On the other side, Norman Lewis' very readable dairy covering the American invasion of Sicily and his subsequent experiences as a Sergeant in the British Army Intelligence Corps attached to the American Army Command in Naples, records that in Sicily the Americans were under orders to beat German prisoners of war to death, and in Naples the No 2 in the American administration, a well known Mafia "identity", ran all the black market operations based on stolen American supplies (equals the entire Naples' economy at that time).

 

This tragedy of mistakes ensured that Italy, itself split into pro and anti fascist groups, was to be the battle ground for two foreign armies for a terrible two years, with nature chipping in by providing some of the worst winter weather on record, and leaving an aftermath of bitterness and mistrust which is only now dying out as the generation involved itself grows old and dies.

 

Anglo-American Forces landed on the Italian mainland later in September 1943, and by the end of October the British 8th Army had reached Brindisi in the South East, and the American 5th army controlled Naples (see the book "Naples '44" by Norman Lewis to relive what it was like to live in the city "liberated" and run by the American Army aka the Mafia).  The Anglo-American landings at Anzio (to the South of Rome) on 22 January 1944 failed to achieve the desired strategic leverage to attack Rome. 

 

The Germans had made the Montecassino heights (but not the Abbey)  the hub of the heavily fortified "Gustav Line" defending the southern approaches to Rome.  From January 1944 successive battle groups from the US, Britain / NZ / India and France / Morocco / Algeria unsuccessfully tried to capture them and suffered heavy losses.

 

On February 15 1944 the monastery and abbey were reduced to rubble by a three hour allied bombing raid which tragically killed only Italian children and civilians who had taken refuge there - no German troops were (or had been) located in the abbey or its grounds. Montecassino finally fell on May 18 1944 when the German forces, who had built defensive positions in the ruins of the Abbey only after it was flattened, retired under cover of darkness after attacks by the Free Polish Brigade, who lost over 1,000 killed and 2,000 injured. 

 

Mount Vesuvius (near Naples) joined in by erupting between January and March 1944 (the most recent eruption there to date).

 

Insightful accounts of the battles and the dubious strategies and leadership on which they were based, are contained in David Hapgood's book "Montecassino" and Richard Holmes' book "Battlefields of the Second World War".

 

Link to page about the Abbey and  Battle of Montecassino

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rome was finally taken (controversially) by American General Mark Clark on 4 June 1944, a couple of weeks after the fall on Montecassino.  Clark, who led the US 5th Army which had just broken out from the Anzio beachhead, had been ordered by Army Commander (British) General Alexander to chase the opposing German forces northwards and not give them a chance to consolidate any position.  Clark lied to Alexander that he was doing this, when in fact he was headed for Rome because, a) he was paranoid about the British reaching Rome first (in reality an impossibility) and b) he wanted to be photographed by his personal Photographic Corps entering Rome. 

 

Clark's decision not to pursue the Germans has been described by the eminent American military historian Carlo D'Este as "as militarily stupid as it was insubordinate" as it allowed the Germans to regroup and condemned the Allies to another brutal Italian winter.  Clark's need to enter Rome in daylight  also caused many unnecessary casualties.  "His behaviour was so outrageous that he forfeited the respect of (his Chief of Staff) and earned the outright contempt of (the American General commanding the Special Forces) who was compelled to lose men so that Clark could enter Rome while there was still sufficient light for the cameras" (Richard Holmes).  

 

Ironically, the news stayed on the front pages for only a few hours, eclipsed by another event called "D-Day" further north on 5 June!  Clark, whose diaries, oddly and interestingly, confirmed many of the nastiest things said about him, went on to command the UN Forces in the Korean War.

 

 

 

US forces head north to the via Flaminia from the Corso through the Piazza del Popolo in Rome - 1945.

Just behind the camera position is the Porta del Popolo, the traditional entry point for pilgrims to Rome, and the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo.

 

 

 

 

One of the factors behind the tragically long and costly Italian campaign was the suspect quality of the most senior allied commanders.  General Sir Alan Brooke, the British Chief of Staff and mastermind of much of the successful overall allied war effort, said of British General Alexander (an English aristocrat who was the supreme allied commander in Italy): "He held some of the highest qualities of a commander, unbounded courage, never ruffled or upset, great charm and a composure that inspired confidence in those around him.  But when it came to working on a higher plane and deciding matters of higher tactics and of strategy he was at once out of his depth; he had no ideas of his own and always sought someone to lean on."  General Freyberg, the NZ dentist turned General who persuaded General Clark to bomb Monte Cassino, was described by an acquaintance as someone "whose great fearlessness owed something to a lack of imagination" (but remember never ever to say anything even vaguely critical about him in New Zealand because they get very defensive).

 

 

 

 

Photos from "An Art City at War"

 

The Ponte Vecchio (Florence) - the only bridge left standing by the retreating German army as Florence is taken by the 8th Army in August 1944.

 

 

 

 

By the end of July 1944 a succession of fierce battles including La Foce (home of the Origo family, and setting for Iris Origo's powerfully readable diary "War in Val d'Orcia"), Castellina, Greve and Florence had just about cleaned out the last German forces from Tuscany.  The battle scars are still visible today on the stonework of places like Brolio Castle and the Pienza Duomo. 

 

Link to Photos of the US War Cemetery near Florence

 

The Germans then fell back onto another fortified line - "the Gothic Line" - to the North of Florence and the Arno Valley, and allied forces were condemned to spend another atrocious winter in mountain foothills. 

 

 

 

US infantry advance past Prato, north of the Arno river, 1945.

 

 

 

In July 2005 there was a fascinating exhibition in the old Franciscan monastery in Bergamo of photos of Alpini partisans in WWII.  Alto Bergamo was one of the few northern Italian towns to escape USAAF bombs.

 

It took another nine months of autumn and winter fighting before the final surrender of the Germans in Italy was achieved on 2 May 1945, only five days before the general surrender of the whole German Army in Reims (photo below) and the end of the war in Europe. 

 

 

7 May 1945 - the end of WWII in Europe - General Jodl surrenders to the Allied Forces at 2.41 am in General Eisenhower's headquarters in Reims.

Poetic justice of a sort for a town that was literally almost obliterated by German artillery fire in WW I.

 

One of the American army units fighting in the West was the famous "Buffalo Brigade" - the only black fighting unit in the US army at the time (though the officers were white!).  Books about the Buffalo soldiers by Bertini (non-fiction) and McBride (fiction) are included above.  

 

"Italy's Sorrow" by James Holland is an impressive 2008 addition to the WW II in Italy bookshelf.  "Tug of War" by Graham and Bidwell covers the entire Italian Campaign and was a valuable addition to the paperback market in 2004.  The book by Field Marshal Lord Carver is also well written around all sorts of original material (letters, reports, interviews etc) from the British Commonwealth forces, now held in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London.

 

The story of the war in Italy is hardly known outside Italy, where it left deep and lasting scars which are only dying out with the deaths of the WWII generation, and the regiments from various parts of the world who fought it.  Both at the time and later it was completely overshadowed by military action in North and East Europe.  So here are some books that redress this imbalance, and more importantly would be worth reading even if it did not exist.  If you only have time for one or two non-fiction books, our recommendation is to choose the following:

 

Top Book Choices

 

War in Val d'Orcia - An Italian War Diary 1943-1944

by Iris Origo

 

 

 

Naples '44

by Norman Lewis

 

 

 

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The gripping story of life on the Origo's estate "La Foce" (with the "ce" pronounced as "che") - photos - just South of Montepulciano in South Tuscany and on the main route of the Northward advancing Allied 8th Army.  The Origos and the contadini on the estate, who had no interest in or involvement with the forces of war (but equally had no option but to suffer its consequences),  juggled simultaneously playing host to refugee Italian children, escaping British airmen and prisoners of war, partisan fighters and a German officers' mess - knowing that the penalty for a "mistake" was summary execution.  A readable "must read" not just for those who love Italy, but for anyone who would like to understand what war is really like and  to reaffirm their faith in humanity in the context of its hard realities.

 

Link to the La Foce Web Site.

 

 

Norman Lewis was a member of a small British Army Intelligence Unit attached to the American 5th Army HQ after the capture of Naples in late 1943.  "Intelligence" in 1943 meant interacting with hundreds of thousands of starving and destitute Italians, and the inept and often corrupt attempts of the American administration to deal with them.  (For example the top administrator was known to be a senior American Mafia identity).  This diary is a compellingly written account of Lewis' day to day life, sustained by his dry humour and admiration for the tenacity and humanity of the Italians he mixed with.  It was nominated by someone, justifiably, as one of the top ten books to come out of WWII.

 

 

 

 

And, as Italy enters the 2000s, the tragic memories left by a divided country and a brutal occupier are to be found in memorials in village after village .....

 

 

 

Memorial erected in 1991 in Lucolena, a hamlet to the north of Radda-in-Chianti.  Tuscany has dozens of similar memorials, often remembering young men rounded up and shot by German forces.

 

 

 

read the full article about why such war criminals escaped prosecution

 

Hidden Italian Archive Reveals WWII Slaughter

Gia Marie Amella for CNN, August 12, 2011

 

San Pancrazio, Italy (CNN) – The din of approaching vehicles shattered the silence over San Pancrazio at daybreak. It was June 29, 1944, when retreating German SS troops stormed the remote Tuscan village nestled in the Italian countryside.

 

Caught unaware, terrified villagers were forced from their homes and brought to the main square. After the women and children were escorted from the village, the men were taken to a cellar and executed. In all, 73 were killed.

 

That tragic day would forever haunt survivors, whose fathers, husbands and sons met a horrific end. The long and painful journey to justice would take decades.

 

San Pancrazio, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Florence, is one of hundreds of places across Italy where unspeakable atrocities targeting civilians occurred during World War II.

 

Between September 1943 and April 1945, the Nazis’ calculated campaign of violence spared no one. In some cases, women, children and the elderly were viciously murdered alongside the men, as villages were overrun.

 

“15,000 Italians were killed,” said Dr. Gianluca Fulvetti, a historian who has published two books on wartime atrocities in Italy. “This wasn’t only a war fought between armies. It was a war on civilians who unwittingly got involved and paid with their lives.”

 

Tuscany was one of the hardest-hit regions, as German troops retreated north following the liberation of Rome. Fulvetti estimates 3,650 people died there, the majority in June 1944.

 

read the full article about why such war criminals escaped prosecution

 

 

 

 

 

A poignant memory of the reality of the last two years of WWII for Italians - Citizens of Ravenna killed in the fight for liberty, 8 September 1943 - 25 April 1945.  The memorial tablet records the names of 89 Italian partisans killed in combat, and well over twice that number of Italian civilians mostly randomly killed by the Germans in acts of reprisal.

 

 

Link to Paradoxplace Ravenna Pages

 

 

Rome - Memorial Plaques in the Ghetto

 

 

"On October 16, 1943, here began the pitiless hunt of the Jews, and 2,091 Roman citizens were sent off to a ferocious death in the Nazi extermination camps. There, they were joined by another 6,000 Italians, victims of the infamous racial hatred.

 

The few who escaped the massacre and the many who feel solidarity with them invoke from mankind love and peace, and they invoke from God pardon and hope.

 

This was undertaken under the auspices of the National Committee for the Celebrations of the Twentieth Anniversary of the Resistance. October 25, 1964."

 

 

 

"And they hadn’t even yet begun to live."

 

In memory of the newly born who were exterminated in Nazi camps, the city has put up this memorial on the day of memory, January 2001.

 

 

Thanks to Richard Nelson for both the photo and the translations.

 

 

 

 

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