Summary of Francesco Gnecchi-Ruscone
Written 50 years after the event this is Francesco Gnecchi-Ruscone’s memoir of his life in Italy during the war and his musings on whether his efforts made any difference to the outcome of the war. In 1940 with the first bombing of Milan his family moved to their farm and life went on relatively unchanged. Though his father did not support Mussolini he joined the army from patriotism.
In 1943 following the armistice Francesco, now a student, joined the resistance and was occupied with helping get supplies from the Allies to Partisan units. He had a number of close shaves and was arrested at one stage by the Germans. He was made a Knight of the Crown of Italy by Prince Umberto for rescuing royal properties during a special assignment.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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Francesco Gnecchi Ruscone
WHEN BEING ITALIAN WAS DIFFICULT
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COPYRIGHT FRANCESCO GNECCHI RUSCONE 1999
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To the memory of
Major R.M.Pagella, O.B.E., R.M., ISLD 1908 – 1945
He trusted us when we needed it
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1 A TIME OF CONFUSION 6
2 A TIME OF CHALLENGES 15
3 A TIME OF TRIALS 25
4 A TIME OF VICTORIES 33
5 A TIME OF RECKONING 44
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For many years, over fifty to be precise, I have given little thought to my wartime memories. It always seemed to be more interesting to look ahead, to the future, to whatever lay around the next corner, than to look back at what had already happened.
Then a combination of events and, I suspect, old age conceit has led me to focus on those memories and to feel that it would be a pity if they were to remain bottled up inside me and die with me.
Besides, though I agree with Simone Signoret that “la nostalgie n’est plus celle qu’elle était”, dwelling on my young years has been a pleasurable experience. So, after accepting an invitation to read, at a conference organized by my University on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the second World War, a short paper on my participation in those events, I decided to write this tale.
I chose to do it in English in homage to my Australian wife Lola and as a message for those of my grandchildren, growing up in Kenya and in Australia, for whom English has become the first language. My Christmas present for that year.
I hope that discovering some of my shady past will not make Lola regret her decision to become the wonderful partner she has been all these years.
I hope that my grandchildren, in whatever country or continent they grow up, will always feel in their hearts the same love for Italy, their and my Country, that moved me then.
I also have a number of British, Australian and American friends, some of whom have their own memories of those times and even some who have experienced circumstances similar or connected to mine. I hope, if these pages reach them and they have the patience to read them, that I can add another angle to their recollections.
Finally I hope that William Shakespeare and Doctor Johnson will forgive me the liberties I have taken with their beautiful language.
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Chapter 1. A TIME OF CONFUSION
There was a time in my youth when I thought that being Italian was difficult. This was in the years of the Second World War and just around it.
I am not meaning by this, and in any case I am not going to recall them here, the events and privations Italians in general had to go through at that time: many people in other countries had to suffer such hardships and, though Italians had their fair share of them, others had it worse. Moreover of all Italians my personal lot was not especially hard. In fact my life at the time was, on the whole, pretty well cushioned and protected. When eventually I came to hurdles there were none that could not be taken. I would be ashamed to make a fuss.
Nor would I accept that being Italian is always difficult: this may well be a popular pun but, if taken in earnest , it can only mean one of two things: either an excuse for accepting that things cannot be improved, something I do not like, or an attitude of whining self-pity and this I like even less. My tale in any case is not meant to paint the panorama of an era: it is just a strictly personal recollection of facts, actions, feelings and thoughts from my direct experience. Modest chronicle, not History.
The time I am talking about spans the years from my teens into my twenties, when I was, I suppose like everyone else, trying to put together an image of myself I could live by. A self-image, that is, to use as a standard when faced with a choice of behaviour. I believe to date that weighing your options against such an image is more decisive, if not necessarily better or wiser, than checking them against a book of rules. I had even chosen for myself an icon in Donatello’s Saint George that is on the facade of the church of Orsanmichele in Florence. It had captivated me since our first acquaintance on the high school textbook of history of art. Tough to depend on the judgment of his eyes!
To begin with of course my self-image had to accommodate options that had nothing or very little with being Italian: learning maths or latin grammar, training to improve my sport performance, discovering why one fell in love with such strange creatures as girls, all this and other standard vagaries of adolescent behaviour were far higher on my list of priorities. However, times being what they were, the awareness of belonging to something beyond family or school grew rapidly and forcibly in my personal panorama. The input was confusing.
I do not want this to become the story of Tristram Shandy’s birth but I must take a step or two back to set the scene. At home, then most of my world, being patriotic was taken for granted: one loved mum and dad, sometimes even younger brothers
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and one loved Italy and that was that. There was no need for soul searching. There was however more to it.
To begin with Italy at the time was in a frenzy of nationalistic fervour: the final reunification of the Country, completed in 1918 with the addition of the last missing bits of Trento and Trieste, the rhetoric of the Great War lingering on, the conquest of a colonial empire in Ethiopia supposed to get us into the Great Powers’ League, all this was being used by the fascist government as a moral justification and an emotional stimulant. All dissent had been silenced or forced to remain within the four walls of private homes. Censorship and propaganda were obviously permeating our school education as well as the general atmosphere.
On the other hand my family had lived for some generations in the cult of the Risorgimento, the nineteenth century movement that had knitted together an Italian state from an often contradictory mixture of nationalism and liberalism. Patria e Libertà, Country and Freedom were for us inseparably linked. In our family the latter tended, if not to always prevail, certainly to shine brightly and to relate to a network of cosmopolitan connections: business, personal and cultural. My grandfather had studied at the University of Leipzig, my mother had completed her schooling at the Sacré Coeur in France. There were subscriptions to “la Revue des deux Mondes” and to “the Illustrated London News”.
A central and much loved figure was Miss Jessie. She had come to Italy in the nineteen-nineties as governess to a great-aunt of mine and had stayed on through the following generations in various capacities: companion, housekeeper, friend and teacher of English to the successive waves of young ones. Her relations were all in India and used to send her a magazine called, if I remember rightly, “Empire” that she used to give us to read as a primer. For me the outcome of her teachings, apart from a reasonably workable knowledge of the language and an undying love for Kipling, was a rather odd view of British life: an endless succession of polo and cricket matches between teams called Bangalore Post Office, Punjab Rifles or some other similarly extravagant names. It was this view, rather than the language, that took some adjusting when in 1945 I met my first live Britons.
In this general picture and in spite, or perhaps because of a general conservative outlook, Fascism was never popular in the family. No doubt there must have been some serious moral and political reasons for this. It was seen for instance as a brazen and arrogant challenge to the prestige and authority of the Monarchy, the constitutional Monarchy that had been the result and the highest expression of the Risorgimento but in my recollections of those pre-war years it was seen essentially as a vulgar and ridiculous degeneration of patriotism. Sarcastic jokes, constantly collected and exchanged, are honestly all I remember of my family’s attitude in these earlier years. Most of it was aesthetic rather than political opposition but here I may be misled by appearances.
My father in particular would go to great lengths to avoid seeming what he called “pompous” and took care to hide his stubborn refusal to accept Fascism behind a
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facade of Belle Èpoque frivolity. His favourite explanation for being anti-fascist was that “Gentlemen wear white shirts, possibly sometimes with thin blue stripes, black never”. Being a Cavalry officer his dim view of the boots and breeches worn by Mussolini and his entourage was also declared to be decisive in choosing where one stood. I learned only much later in my life that in the nineteen-thirties he had been offered membership of the fascist party, which at the time was a pre-requisite if he was to be appointed Mayor of the village where he had his property. This was a position to which since 1860, with the unification of Italy his great-grandfather, grandfather and father had been elected in more liberal times, in fact something that the family saw as a sort of corvée which fell to them as the nearest thing to local squires: a service they owed. Having replied that nobody was going to tell him to which party he should belong, he was listed as “hostile to the regime” and his promotion from Lieutenant to Captain was blocked. That made him resign from the Army. A mild sanction by the standards to which in the twentieth century we have become accustomed but then – thank God – at that time Mussolini’s Italy was not Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. When the war came some years later he went through it all with that same rank, age and seniority notwithstanding.
To return to my vision of things. I was twelve years old when Ethiopia was conquered and the “Return of Rome’s Empire onto the Fateful Seven Hills” was announced. It is fair to say that enthusiasm in Italy was then general, all the old national inferiority complexes vindicated. All this was pretty heady stuff for me too: exotic adventures and victories, older family friends and relations serving with distinction, one of them, a fascinating cousin of my mother, Paolo Caccia Dominioni, later to become famous at El Alamein, commander of a Battalion of native Erithrean Ascaris, with their tall red tarboosh and tassel and the unit’s striped cummerbund. With any luck some day soon I might be playing polo against the Addis Abeba Post Office. It was great to be Italian!
The sobering cold shower on all this was my father: he would buy none of it. The conquest of “a pile of unproductive stones” on the other side of the Suez Canal, firmly in the hands of the Powers that were opposing our conquest, was to him economic and strategic madness. In spite of his unshakeable devotion to his King, Victor Emmanuel’s acceptance from Mussolini of the crown of Emperor of Ethiopia was proclaimed by him a sad carnevalata, a carnival stunt. I suppose I was then of the age when it is normal and proper to start doubting one’s father’s wisdom: I resented his attitude as prejudiced pessimism. We all found out only a few years later how right he was. Certainly my discussions with him on that occasion, that for some reason seemed to occur during some early morning rides, walking back to dry the horses’ sweat after a canter, opened my eyes on the fact that my Country’s wisdom and enthusiasms could also be questioned.
It was still good to be Italian when the radio brought news of the Berlin Olympic Games: we beat the Austrians in the soccer final and Silvano Abba, an officer in father’s Regiment, won a medal in the Modern Pentathlon. Six years later he fell on the Russian Front in what was probably the last Cavalry charge in history. From then on the occasions for pride and rejoicing became scarcer and scarcer against a
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mounting wave of events more likely to induce perplexity and eventually downright shame.
In the Spanish civil war neither side was popular at home but the reporting of it in the Italian press became such a blatant mixture of lies and propaganda that the ancestral subscription to the “Corriere della Sera” was discontinued and we read about it in the “Journal de Genève” and the Vatican’s “Osservatore Romano”, the only two papers then admitted into our home.
Often we would be called out of school to take part in some street demonstration organized by the Party to clamour in front of the French and British Consulates for the “restitution” of Nice, Corsica and Malta and other such claims. Skipping lessons was in any case welcome but with a couple of friends who shared a healthy dislike of mass hysteria we soon discovered a way of taking a wrong turn from the procession and going to the San Siro racecourse instead. Not only was it much more fun but we also became quite good at judging form and by the end of the season our winnings, judiciously invested in the Tote, bought us quite a few ice-creams.
In 1939 our hearts went out to the gallant resistance of the Polish Lancers and of the Finnish Skiers to the invasion of their Countries but in none of this were Italian loyalties directly challenged. What however took firm root in me was the conviction that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, in spite of whatever differences were between them, were substantially equivalent, a view that for a very long time afterwards was not politically correct. All I had to go on was their aggression to smaller neighbours: their civil rights records had not yet come to my knowledge. I suppose my age and the lack of reliable information then available to us account for such a limited view but when I grew up and such information came to light I saw no reason to change my judgment.
June 1940: my first emotional memory of the war was mother crying because the Germans had conquered Paris. In the ninety years of her life I never saw her cry at any other time.
In those same days, Italy having declared war to France and Great Britain, father summoned his three sons – I, the eldest was sixteen – to a room known as the studietto della pesa, the little weighbridge office. That was where the administration of the farm was kept; for family purposes where reprimands for severe offences were given. The weighing equipment with its bars of blue steel and its knobs of ferociously polished brass gave it somehow the dignity of a captain’s bridge on a naval ship. There he explained to our startled trio that: one, Italy’s entry into the war against a France on her knees was shameful and unforgivable; two, the outcome of the war would in any case be a disaster for Italy: subjugation to Germany in case of victory, misery and shame in case of defeat; three, an officer, whatever his political opinions, does not stay at home when his Country – rightly or wrongly – is at war. Consequently he would not apply for the exemption from mobilization to which he was entitled and: four, he expected us to behave so as not to be a nuisance to our mother, hence in charge of farm and family and possibly help her along. We were not, as far as I
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remember expected to understand. “Theirs not to reason why”. It was a statement of facts and a guideline for conduct.
That summer however, apart from father’s absence, life went on as if everything were normal: war was remote. We know now that the Battle of Britain was the crucial event of that time but on the information that was then available to us we could not see its importance. Events in Africa in which Italians were involved meant much more to us. The hopeless defence of East Africa by an army that could not be supplied, scattered over an immense territory, burdened by a numerous civilian population that could not be abandoned to the Ethiopians’ revenge, the final surrender of the Duke of Aosta with the honours of war, all this was sad but we could still feel pride in their achievements and behaviour.
It may be difficult for anyone who has not lived those years, who has only heard or read about them, to realize how much time and care were still given to everyday, private events and problems and that only in a few dramatic moments war would take over and cancel them. In any case my recollections of those first war years form a very composite picture: the joys of happy adolescence alternating with sudden flashes on the drama of war. My last few terms of high school were happy and essentially carefree: exams were actually becoming easier. As a pass was required for admission to officers’ school examiners were instructed not to be too fussy: this suited me. My main aim in life was then in fact to run 1500 metres in under four minutes. For the record I never made it.
Suddenly the news came that my cousin Giannantonio Gnecchi Ruscone, with whom I used to play tennis, was lost at sea. He was only a few years my senior, a Midshipman on the cruiser Zara, a radar-less sitting duck, sunk off Cape Matapan, the southernmost point of Greece. Our fading hopes that he might have been rescued and taken prisoner, as well as his parents’ refusal to abandon them, stayed with us all those years.
With the first bombing of Milan the family moved permanently to la Bergamina, father’s farm. We loved it. It meant long, crowded, train and tram journeys to school and back but then we were in the country and at la Bergamina, whatever happened in the outside world, the horses had to have their exercise and men were scarce. Early morning lonely canters with the sun just rising and the hooves leaving a trail in the brilliance of the dewy grass; the air, still cool, on my face, the harmony of power and rhythm in our movements, our two bodies as one, remain among the happiest memories of my life. Sometimes other friends with horses would join us and we would then improvise some cross-country events with extravagant rules, great banter and mindless adolescent joy.
At the same time mother had started doing social work in military hospitals. I sometimes accompanied her. I had then to face the gruesome reality of war and I was forced to ask myself questions. Most of the soldiers in those wards had had their feet amputated after suffering frostbite during the winter campaign on the mountains of Greece and Albania with inadequate boots. Why was equipment so poor? Why were evacuation and treatment delayed until amputation became unavoidable? But further,
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why did we have to attack Greece? Why were we nearly beaten and thrown back into the sea by the Greeks, who were fighting for their Country like the Poles and the Finns we had so much admired a few months before? Why had we put our Army in the situation of having to be rescued by a contemptuous German Army? What answers could there be for those footless young men, for that stench of gangrene? Another hospital of mother’s specialized in plastic surgery. There it was mostly airmen with their faces burnt featureless, often blinded, their limbs fastened in grotesque positions to allow skin graft. I was feeling guilty for my good health, for my unbroken body, proud of mother’s commitment, embarrassed by a feeling of uselessness, by being just a confused spectator. It had been hammered into me since childhood that every privilege is a debt: how could I ever repay such debts?
And yet school terms ended, holidays came and I began spending them outside the family. In 1942 I had a month at the seaside with Ignazio Lado, a school friend of many years, who patiently coached me from a little rowboat for the three mile swimming race between Santa Margherita and Portofino. That time I won it but with little merit: all the better swimmers were away in the Army. In the summer and autumn I exchanged visits with friends: Alberto Tosi in Varese, for long shooting walks in the hills, chasing elusive hare and woodcock or in the Veneto, as a guest of Boso Roi. From the Rois’ house we would ride or bicycle almost every day to Frassanelle, Count Novello Papafava’s house, with whose daughter Lieta we formed a very close trio.
With both sets of friends politics and the war became more and more central to our discussions, but with a difference. With Alberto and the Varese friends we were more concerned with the immediate practical problems of our expected imminent conscription. We had by then no illusions left of victory or even of a cause worth fighting for but all our upbringing and education stood against dodging what was coming to us, let alone rebelling against it. Our livre de chevet became “Tsushima”, by Frank Thiess, then just published in Italian, the story of the long, desperate journey of the Russian Fleet, going to its destruction by the Japanese in the war of 1905. The disorder and ineptitude, government corruption and incomprehension, technical failure and a resigned, honour-bound acceptance of duty, all seemed to mirror the Italian scene of 1942. And yet when Alberto came to la Bergamina we would spend our afternoons swimming the Adda rapids with my brothers, enjoying tumbling through white water between sharp rocks, frequently disinfecting our scratches from a bottle of grappa we kept for that purpose at an inn downstream, always showing off to whatever girl we might persuade to come to the river with us rather than going to the manicured swimming pools that a couple of neighbours’ country houses already had in those years.
With Lieta and Boso, possibly because of the influence of Lieta’s father, a leading personality in a liberal-catholic opposition to Fascism, the themes were more general: how could Italy denounce its alliance with Hitler, how could the King reassert his constitutional prerogatives having accepted for twenty years all Mussolini’s violations of that same Constitution? But at seventeen and eighteen all that flew high over our heads and we would soon return to more manageable personal issues. I was
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struggling to keep up with the two of them: they always seemed to me so much more sophisticated: I could swim and ride better but they made me feel they had read everything that had ever been printed between two covers. When they told me about Freud I racked my brain for days in the hope of discovering a decent complex I could boast of. I remember a long, crowded, standing train journey from Vicenza to Milan, when we were returning for a stay at la Bergamina: we discussed nonstop for hours on end where the line should be drawn to distinguish love from friendship and which, if any, should have priority.
The war, apart from what was public and official, I still saw essentially through our father’s eyes. After a short period at his Regiment’s depot he was transferred and spent most of those years as officer in charge of supply trains to units in Yugoslavia and later on the Russian Front. Occasionally, when one of his trains was formed in Milan or went through it we would go down and meet him in a hotel near the station. His inside view of the incompetence and disorganization, of the growing disintegration of the troops’ morale, of the peremptory and arrogant attitude of the Germans towards their Italian and other allies weighed on him more heavily than discomfort and fatigue. He would not tell us much, we would never know where he was going next, we could just feel his mounting resentment towards those who had brought his Country and the Army he had believed in, to this point. In 1942 he eventually returned from a trip to Yugoslavia with pleurisy and was at home on sick leave for a few months.
He was then transferred again: this time to another Regiment, the Cavalleggeri di Alessandria, that was to be deployed in Calabria to provide defence of that coast against possible Allied landings. For a Dragoon, as he had always been to end up in a Light Horse Regiment, and on foot at that, was bad enough, though obviously better than being a store manager on rails. To make matters worse, in order to take position at the tip of the Italian Peninsula the unit was formed in Friuli, at the other end of the Country, a thousand kilometres away. The train journey took two weeks, the officers often having to go out at stations along the way to buy on the black market food for their men, as no provisions had been made. The armament of those eight hundred men, whose task was to defend some twenty kilometres of coastline, consisted of the Mark 1891 Cavalry carbine with two clips of ammunition each. Father still tried, when talking to us, to sidestep the essential tragedy of the situation, to lighten the bitterness of his feelings. He preferred to enlarge on the comic or absurd aspects of his service: his Sergeant’s inventory of the furniture of the house where he had been billeted listing the bidet as “one guitar-shaped basin of unknown use” or the CO’s standing order for when an alarm came: “Deploy your men on their appointed positions along the beach, tell them to get behind the biggest rock they can find and to pray the Holy Virgin that the Allies might choose to land elsewhere”, tragically the only sensible order possible in the circumstances. But we were growing up and we knew it was not funny.
In the autumn of 1942 I started at the School of Architecture of the Polytechnic of Milan. New friends, a sudden broadening of experiences and opinions, the realization of how sheltered and limited my world had been until then, the challenge of testing
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its values. On one hand there was the enthusiasm to study the new fascinating subjects that would become the core of my professional life in years to come. On the other everything was precarious: would I be able even to finish the first year? I had been assigned, for the fundamental reason that I was taller than six feet, to the First Regiment of the Granatieri di Sardegna, the Regiment Number One of the Italian Army. Not what I, son and grandson of Cavalrymen, would have chosen, however prestigious. Pulling strings for a transfer though was ruled out by father: bad form. Such were my surrealistic concerns. The actual call, scheduled for some time in the following summer, could be brought forwards or backwards on short notice, according to the Regiment’s needs. So I went through all my courses with a sort of hurried anxiety to get them completed and in fact by the end of the Spring Term I had passed all my exams for the first year, my marks in the circumstances being respectable rather than brilliant.
In the same period two Italian Armies in North Africa and in Russia had been practically wiped out. Two of father’s friends, Alberto Litta on the Don and Guido Visconti at El Alamein had fallen, both being awarded a posthumous Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare, the Italian equivalent of a Victoria Cross. Neither had believed he was fighting the right war. Several others had disappeared in the disastrous retreat on the Russian Front in the winter 1942-‘43. At the Polytechnic and within the University generally I could feel a general mood of paralysis against the impending catastrophe. Nobody bothered any more to hide dissent, criticism or even open hostility to the fascist regime but how could one separate it from those who were still fighting, our fathers or older brothers among them, how could one actively oppose it without becoming a traitor? We were feeling inexperienced and impotent: our discussions just leading to futile wishful thinking. We could see nobody that could give us a lead. I learned later that it was in those months that underground political parties were formed or reorganized but I never came in touch with anything other than informal and equally floundering temporary groups.
Then came the end of term and we all dispersed. It was only a few weeks before the Allies landed in Sicily. Whatever else I might have been thinking or feeling, this was the invasion of Italian soil by foreign troops. I went down to Milan, to the Army’s recruitment office and demanded to be enlisted as a volunteer in whatever unit would first oppose the invasion. The ageing Sergeant at the desk looked up at me, silent for a while, then said quietly but firmly in Neapolitan dialect: “Guaglio’ non fare ‘o fesso, vattenne a casa”, “Don’t be daft, my lad, go home”. Incapable of a reaction, furious at his cynicism, but furious as well for having made a fool of myself, aware that he had seen through me and that he was essentially right, I went home. A silent hug from my mother when I confessed my attempt went some way to heal my humiliation: I had been silly, as the Sergeant had hinted but perhaps not only that.
There was no time however to sulk over it: a week later Mussolini fell, the whole fascist structure, party, militia, propaganda machine, all collapsed and disappeared in a matter of hours. We certainly rejoiced at home, father being on sick leave again in those days, but we were soon sobered by the sight of the mean vindictiveness by many of those who had applauded the regime when it appeared victorious and were
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now seeking new virginities and by the thought that the real difficulty still lay ahead: how to take Italy out of the war.
In the meantime something else was happening to me: I was nineteen and had struck my Great Romantic Love. Lorenza became the standard against which all my thoughts, feelings and actions had to be measured. I designed houses in fantastically beautiful locations and gave them to her in anticipation of future love nests. I have recently stumbled onto one of such drawings: not bad, allowing for a first year students infatuation for Le Corbusier. I wrote for her atrocious verse in French, after Paul Géraldy, of whose poems – it must be said in my defence – she had given me a small volume. In reality I would have been embarrassed to write Italian verse: for some reason I could let myself get away with it in a foreign language without blushing. Her family had moved to a house in the country some ten miles from la Bergamina. My bicycle could not keep away from that road.
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[Photograph of a man on a horse with caption]: 8. On El Gris. Whatever happened in the outside world the horses at la Bergamina had to have their exercise.
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[Photograph with caption]: 7, Midshipman Giannantonio Gnecchi Ruscone, a cousin. Lost at sea in the battle of Cape Matapan,1941
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[Photograph with caption]: 5, Father, Lieutenant for ever in the 3rd, Savoia Cavalleria
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[Photograph with caption]: 6, A picnic at Frassanelle. Boso and Lieta the first two on the left.
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[Photograph with caption]: 4, Miss Jessie, who taught me more than she ever imagined.
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[Photograph with caption]: 3, 1935, on Caterina with father on Yorick, learning more than horsemanship but disagreeing on the conquest of Empires
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[Photograph with caption]: 2, 1932, with my mother, learning early that Gentlemen wear white shirts, never black.
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[Photograph with caption]: 1, Saint George by Donatello
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Chapter 2. A TIME OF CHALLENGES
Suddenly on September 8th 1943 the Italian armistice was announced. My call to the Regiment had not come; father was also still at home. It became clear in the first couple of days that the German Army was taking over without meeting any but brief, sporadic, hopeless acts of resistance. The disintegration of the Italian Forces was later frequently blamed on the lack of leadership by the Badoglio Government, on the ambiguity of his proclamation of the armistice, on the King’s hasty departure from Rome . All of this is true enough but it must also be remembered that at that time there were very few efficient units left in Italy: these were still scattered all over the Balkans and Greece as well as Southern France. On the island of Cefalonia the whole Acqui Division was exterminated after surrender, guilty of having resisted a few days the German take-over. The men at the depots, the survivors of the defeats in Russia and in Africa had no fight left in them to meet the well planned, determined, brutal strikes of the Wehrmacht. Only where regimental tradition and pride remained, as in the Granatieri di Sardegna and the Lancieri di Montebello in Rome or some Alpini Battalions in a few alpine valleys did some episodes of resistance occur.
To father and us however Badoglio’s words had been clear enough. Italy had surrendered to the Allies, all soldiers had to depose their arms but any attack, from whatever side, should be resisted. To us it meant, with no doubt whatever, that the German take-over was to be opposed. We tried in vain to find some unit still intact but, with growing feelings of shame and frustration, all we could find were abandoned billets with some weapons and ammunition still lying around. These we collected, cleaned, oiled wrapped and buried: we thought then that the Allies would soon arrive in Northern Italy and we could then help. I believe they were in fact used about a year and a half later but by then I was no longer in that area.
Our next problem was one we had not anticipated: a stream of Allied ex-prisoners of war from disbanded camps who were trying to reach the border with neutral Switzerland, some thirty miles North West of la Bergamina. A home-made organization was then set up by my parents and some friends: safe barns where they could rest, eat and hide in day-time, civilian clothes for disguise, safe lanes towards Como and the frontier with trustworthy guides for the next leg. Some groups were obviously not Allied soldiers: there were old people, women and children: Jewish families we presumed but we felt that asking questions would be indiscreet and unwelcome. It was my first contact on one hand with the world of the hunted, of those who have to hide and run, on the other with the extraordinary humanity, reliability and generosity of people, mostly farmers and their families. No questions were asked, no distinctions made, no rewards expected. No attention was paid to the
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threatening posters that were soon appearing in every village at the behest first of the Germans then of Mussolini’s new puppet Government. Their commitment to help could mean burnt crops or homes or even death but there were people in need, as possibly were some members of their own families in other parts of Europe at that very moment, and help came spontaneous, unstinting, concrete. I also learned a lesson from them: at first, along with my wish to help and my compassion, I felt a shade of resentment when these fugitives did not immediately or fully trust me. Those farmers knew better what was fair to expect: they understood almost instinctively the anguish and fear of those people and just carried on the job of helping them.
Of those weeks, from a blur of faces seen briefly in darkness, I remember clearly one episode. One evening, at the moment of setting off, one of a group of five or six South African officers had an attack of hysterics and wanted to stay behind and give himself up to the Germans. The others lined up in front of him and very coolly, taking it in turns, one after the other, slapped his face until he was persuaded to follow. My job when night fell was just to bicycle ahead of the party to check that the path was clear until I met the guide for the next leg who would then take over.
Around mid-October, as the flow of fugitives began to dry up, the first news started to filter through to us about groups of Partisans being formed here and there. Units of the Italian Fourth Army that had been occupying Southern France, had refused to surrender and had withdrawn into some valleys of the Western Alps and the adjoining Piedmontese foothills. Nearer us, in some valleys above Lecco, on Lake Como, some smaller groups had appeared out of individual initiatives. It was however difficult to establish a contact as the Germans had immediately started mopping-up operations and all access to the area was heavily guarded.
To complicate matters Mussolini had in the meantime set up his puppet republic and had called up into his new army the age group to which both my brother Cesare and I belonged. Answering that call was out of the question but this further reduced our mobility since, if stopped, we risked arrest and execution without trial as deserters. Giancarlo Puecher, a school friend, was arrested and shot by a fascist squad in Erba, a town about twelve miles from la Bergamina. At that point the only practical alternative open to us seemed to be crossing into Switzerland, to be interned as refugees. Our parents, naturally enough, would have liked to know us safely there but we could not bear the idea of backing out, of waiting in safety, without participating, for a liberation that would then be gained only as a gift from the Allies. We felt the need to commit ourselves, to act in order to re-acquire a national dignity, to cancel the guilt and the shame for the aggressions to a beaten France, to Greece and Yugoslavia, the humiliation, above all, so near and burning, of the collapse of September.
We had though no workable alternative to offer our parents. So we went into hiding in a villa near Como, where we would wait for a mysterious smuggler who was supposed to “take us over”. The house, despite being only a couple of miles from the border, was anything but safe. Its owners, an uncle and aunt, Ricky and Costanza Resta Pallavicino, were Gentleman and Lady in Waiting to the Princes of Piedmont, the Heir to the Crown of Italy. They had been on duty at the time of the armistice and
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had barely managed to take to safety in Switzerland, by walking over the Saint Bernard Pass, Princess Marie José and her children. The house was supposed to be uninhabited and our maternal grandmother, Elisabetta Caccia Dominioni, came to live there as a cover to explain the reopening of it. My brother and I were confined to some back rooms, fuming at the prospect of becoming interned in Switzerland, frustrated in our plans to find friends that we thought might be “doing something”, reduced to reading over and over some Agatha Christie thrillers and listening on a crank-up gramophone to some records by Charles Trenet and Jean Sablon, that formed all the entertainment and cultural diet available. “Ménilmontant”, “Il pleut dans ma chambre”, “Je tire ma réverence”: for years afterwards Cesare and I could have howled on hearing them again!
Suddenly the Germans came to our rescue. One morning immediately after Christmas they requisitioned the villa next door to house some Kommandantur That very night my brother and I jumped the dividing wall between the two gardens and with some pots of bright red paint we had found in the cellar of our house gave a new look to a couple of marble Nymphs that decorated the balustrade along the lake-shore. We certainly did not think of it as a war action; at most “to the Vandals a Vandal and a half”: it was really just a prank by two lads exasperated by claustrophobia. Or perhaps we were just pioneering the culture of graffiti, so celebrated these days. However it might have been conceived, from our point of view the mission was a success. The commotion in that garden the next morning was unbelievable: hordes of Germans were busy digging trenches among the poor lawns and manicured box hedges, putting up sandbagged sentry lookouts and generally doing all I am sure the proper German handbook prescribes in such a circumstance. The theory, we heard later, was that a raid of Partisans had come in the night across the lake in rowboats. We certainly never dared confess to grandmother it was our doing.
Obviously our waiting in Como was over: we were smuggled out that same day and a friendly car with dubious but workable papers was found to drive us to the country house of another uncle in the Veneto. Here we were again isolated and frustrated. The cultural menu had changed though. This uncle, Alessandro Marcello, husband to father’s sister, was a man of great charm and charisma. Also a Cavalry officer, decorated in World War One, an internationally distinguished botanist, professor at Padua University and a worldwide traveller, he took us in hand with authority and humour. While he sympathized with our feelings, he decided I should not in any case be idle and neglect my architectural studies. He went to Venice, fetched from his library two sixteenth century editions: Palladio’s “Four Books on Architecture” and a Vitruvius in Latin. I could not suppress some regret for my Como’s Agatha Christie.
Some weeks later father found out that a Sergeant of his Regiment had holed himself up in the recruiting office of the new republican army of Mussolini. All his loyalties though were still in the right place: he promptly delivered me a certificate of exemption from conscription as an indispensable worker for war production in father’s farm. This allowed me not only to return home but also to attend courses at the Politecnico’s Architectural School.
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My brother remained in the Veneto, where uncle was to form later that spring his own Partisan unit, active until the end of the war as an indispensable intelligence and supply point from the plain to the units fighting on the Cansiglio Plateau, a few miles North. So we were parted: I missed our silent understanding, his firm moral commitment and his irony, that had so much helped us to cope with the intensity of feeling and emotions of those times.
At the Politecnico I immediately found the friends I was counting on: Alberto Mazzoni, Alberto Tosi, Guido Mosterts, Fabio Semenza and others. I had no idea of what they had been up to but I was sure they were “doing something”. In fact after an initial period of little contact, all as busy as I had been in dodging the fascist draft in one way or another, they had got together informally forming something that became known as “the Group of Young Liberals”, later when required to give ourselves a more formal structure, to become Brigata Federico Marescotti, after the name of a Politecnico student killed in action as a Partisan in Val d’Ossola. As we were all university students we became attached directly to the Comando Generale del Corpo Volontari della Libertà, the Resistance’s General Headquarters, that was just then taking shape, and were mostly given duties of liaison and organization for the Partisan groups that were being formed spontaneously in a great number of localities. Our meetings, among ourselves or with HQ people, never too many together in public, were held in a number of favourite places: the Politecnico itself, some out of the way café or ice-cream parlour and the weekly concerts of the Società del Quartetto. We rather enjoyed enlisting Mozart and Beethoven as accomplices.
With the end of spring we became involved mostly in arranging aerial drops of supplies from the Allies to Partisan units. In practice this meant finding suitable areas, without steep hills or other nearby obstacles that might hinder low altitude night-time flight, far enough from hostile or indiscreet eyes but not too far from the final destination of the dropped supplies. Then we had to find a local Partisan unit reliable enough to man the field and the road blocks needed to protect its approaches during the operation, adequate hiding places for sorting out the equipment received and some means by which to ship it unobserved to the units expecting it and about a million other details. That done we had to report it all back to Headquarters and to organize the two special messages that Radio London would broadcast: the first signifying that our request had been accepted and the second announcing that the drop would take place within the following three nights. On receiving the second message we went back to the site to set up the lights that would guide the pilots: three in a straight line and the fourth right or left of the last one, beaming a code letter in Morse, as indicated in our request. Bonfires, cumbersome to build, difficult to light and to put off in a hurry and above all much too visible from miles around, were soon abandoned in favour of acetylene lamps.
Then began the nights of waiting for the sound of aircraft engines, of checking and rechecking the lights, the positions and the weaponry of the men at the road blocks, some of it quite fancy, from left-overs of World War One to double barrelled shotguns, often in very dubious conditions of maintenance. And often winding it all up at dawn, hiding everything ready for the next night, frustrated and anxious about
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dwindling security. Pilots had their difficulties too, meteorological and otherwise. We knew this and understood. But, if after three nights the drop had not come, the whole operation had to be started again from scratch: on empty third nights our sympathy and understanding of their problems had worn thin. I still remember one message: “le rondini sono arrivate” “swallows have arrived” announcing a drop near Oggiono that never came. It became our private code phrase to indicate something gone wrong. Luckily all operations in which I was involved, drop or no drop, always went smoothly. But how much dew in the tall grass and how many mosquitos in the sky of those beautiful moonlit Lombard nights! We were all drenched to our waist and eaten alive.
From this period however I also have painful memories: the toll that summer was heavy. On a June afternoon after touring some hills of Brianza in search of a new drop site, laughing on the branches of a tree from which we were stealing cherries, I said goodbye to Paolo Carpi, three years my junior. Some days later he was arrested and deported to Flossenburg, then to Gross Rosen, where he was eventually murdered by the Lager’s Doktor with an injection of phenol. That camp was too small to afford a gas chamber. He was seventeen.
A few weeks later came the news that a cousin, Ferdinando Tacoli, had been killed in action in Friuli, having chosen to hold a position alone in order to allow the patrol he commanded to withdraw from the attack of a much stronger German force.
In an almost identical action in Valsesia fell Gino Prinetti Castelletti, a neighbour and a frequent participant in the morning rides at la Bergamina.
Two more cousins, Aldo and Pio Gnecchi Ruscone had been captured in 1943 and deported to Germany. They refused to be released by accepting to serve in Mussolini’s republican army. Pio did not survive.
It was also at that time that I learned something that is not found in books: the responsibility of command. It was usually my task to set up the road blocks: how many, where, how strong and all that and to set some guidelines for reactions in case of an alarm. I had neither rank nor previous war experience but I came from the Milan Headquarters and the men listened and obeyed. At first this surprised me but also gave me an anguished fear that my mistake could cost very dear to those unknown men who were trusting me, many with families, all putting their lives in my hands. However I also understood that I had no right to show such feelings: it would have been a primary error and one that could compromise the security of the entire operation and of those very men. In any case where I was involved everything always went well.
Towards the end of the summer the direct involvement of Headquarters in the management of drops began to diminish. By then many Partisan units, the more numerous and active ones, had their own Allied liaison officer from the British SOE or the American OSS, who handled that business directly. Our little group began then to co-operate with a mission of SIM, the Intelligence Service of the Italian Royal Army: Missione Nemo. This connection most probably came from the personal
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acquaintance of Mario Argenton, an Artillery Captain, to whom we had been referring through all the previous period, and Riccardo De Haag, a Captain of the Alpini, who was the second in command of that mission. The Head of it, Emilio Elia, a Lieutenant Commander of the Regia Marina, had been landed in March with a radio operator on the coast of Liguria and, after a short period of activity in Tuscany, had set up his base in Milan. “Nemo”, his code name, became that of the whole mission.
By the Autumn 1944, after the liberation of Marche and Tuscany, the Italian Front had set along what the Germans had called the “Gothic Line”, a series of strong points on the Apennines from the beaches North of Pisa to the Adriatic near Rimini. That summer the Allies had withdrawn several divisions from their Armies in Italy, the Fifth American and the Eighth British, to man the landing in Southern France, a Front to which they gave priority. Further handicapped by the season’s bad weather, they reckoned to have insufficient forces for an immediate offensive through the Apennines into the Po Valley. The Germans had in any case begun to build further defences aimed at keeping the Allies from entering the Reich’s territory as long as possible, always in the hope that the alliance between Russians and Anglo-Americans would break, allowing them to avoid the unconditional surrender the Allied Governments requested. This line followed roughly the contours of the hills bordering the Po Valley plain: the foothills of the Alps from the Valpolicella, East of Lake Garda, turning North of Verona to join the southern slopes of the Berici and Euganei Hills, finally reaching the Adriatic along the banks of the Adige.
So one morning captain De Haag, known to us as “l’Alpino”, took me to a hidden office in a side street that was the base of Lieutenant Commander Elia who was introduced as “l’Ingegnere”. After a conversation that at first seemed to me vague and pointless but – I understood later – was his way of sizing me up, he told me of this defence line, of which there was at that point only vague and fragmentary information and asked me if I could make a reliable and detailed survey of it. The Mission would supply me by weekly couriers with the necessary maps of adequate scale, that I would return completed with drawings of all I could identify as defensive works. He stressed that General Alexander, Commander of the Allied Forces in Italy, was impatient to learn about it. My only technical credits were in having passed the previous summer a Politecnico exam of “Survey of Monuments”, for which I had drawn the Parthenon, plan, elevation and cross-section, at the scale of one to a hundred, but I was much impressed by the personality of “l’Ingegnere” and the offer of a responsibility like that could not be refused. I still feel flattered that he chose me for that job.
I do not know what the Mission thought then of that line. I worked on it the following weeks having a purely tactical vision of it, i.e. where the first Allied units, after crossing the Po, would have met a resistance supported by fixed positions. I learned much later, after the war, that General Alexander’s preoccupations were rather of a strategic, if not actually of a political order. It could have been the southern outposts of the Alpenfestung, the “Alpine Redoubt”, from which the German OKW, the Army’s Supreme Command, pressed from East and West, was daydreaming of staging an extreme resistance in the hope of a break between the Allies
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that would allow them to form a common front against the Soviet Army. At the time though such considerations were flying very high over my head, but I can see now that they could explain General Alexander’s urgency.
So I was handed over to the care of “l’Alpino” for a crash course on the tricks of the trade and the rules for security, most of which I later found unapplicable, if not actually apt to make me look utterly suspect. I was then instructed to report four days later to our “safe house” in Vicenza.
On my last day at home I broke those security rules straight away and went for a slow, romantic walk with Lorenza around the small lake of Sartirana, our two bicycles between us, feeling, and no doubt trying to look, ever so noble and dashingly adventurous, a proper knight, in spite of the drab modesty of steed and shining armour. I could simply not resist her gold-speckled eyes.
“ et despaillettes d’or
brillent dans ton regard”
I had written in one of my mock-Géraldy sonnets. We parted on a mutual promise to bounce our gazes off the North Star – easy to recognize – every evening at half past ten, weather permitting. The next morning, leaving a romantic letter to my parents pinned to my pillow, I set off to war. In my pack Kipling’s “Kim” and Sartoris’ ’’Introduzione all’Architettura Moderna”. You are free to interpret my choices.
I spent the day in Milan collecting a set of false identity cards and military exemption papers plus an impressive Ausweis, a pass of the Organization Todt, the German para-military body in charge of works, full of eagles and swastikas, that even authorized me to trespass upon military building sites. A beautiful job by the Missione Nemo’s specialists. I spent the night in Alberto Tosi’s digs in Milan, a room furnished with a bed and an armchair. Alberto and I had known each other since childhood and had done several things together that summer but I was the first of our group to set off burning bridges with home. He must have been much impressed because he let me have the bed. We did not sleep for quite a while and I knew he wanted to break a tense silence. “Oh God” I was thinking “don’t let him say some famous last words”, notoriously of bad omen. “Francesco” he called at last “Remember, at night, when you go to bed, always fold your trousers carefully or the next morning they are a rag.” I have always felt that only a true friend could give such proper advice at such a time. Obviously in very recent years P.G Woodehouse’s Jeeves had swept through our tender minds with devastating effects.
And so began a season of long pedalling on unfamiliar roads, of looking among gold and russet vineyards for good viewpoints from which to observe the fortifications building sites, the slow digging of anti-tank ditches, zig-zagging trenches, bases for gun emplacements or sheltered ammunition depots by reluctant, forcibly conscripted, men and women from the neighbouring farms, of nights in barns (warm) or haystacks (cold) belonging to those same people, who asked no questions, probably often guessed what I was up to, shared with me their meagre polenta based suppers, never reported me. On those evenings my drawings were often finished by candlelight,
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drawings that would never have given any credit to my Politecnico teachers in “Survey of Monuments”, even making allowances for darkness, chilblains and hurry.
The security instructions I had received before setting off demanded primarily that I should have the minimum possible contact with people outside the Missione, even with proven patriots. This loneliness, grating against my natural taste for jolly company, is what I remember as the heaviest burden of that period, a burden much greater than the cold the hunger and the tiredness. About once a week however I had my rendezvous at the safe house in Vicenza. That was the home, in a secluded square, of an extraordinary family: the Candias. There came the courier from Milan to collect my drawings and any message to be radioed South and to give me new false papers as well as new maps of the area for me to decorate. These were the 1:25000 maps of Istituto Geografico Militare, the Italian Ordnance Survey, based in Florence but with the Allied advance, evacuated to the castle of Merate, only about five miles from la Bergamina, where our group had made some useful raids. The current set in my possession used to travel rolled up in the frame of my bicycle: I became quite adept at taking off and replacing the saddle in record time when caution suggested it during my surveying sessions.
More than fifty years later I still have for the Candia family a deep admiration and gratitude. For my friends and me it was easy, even stimulating to take chances, to challenge the mighty Wehrmacht in a game of wits, to play injuns and cowboys for real stakes. Making their house available to us, risking the safety of the whole family, father, mother and three young girls, required a deliberate courage and a certitude of choices far more difficult. Nora, the eldest of the girls and my contemporary, was operating as a courier between Vicenza an a Partisan brigade on Monte Grappa and later met with imprisonment and torture. In their house I also would meet the other two members of the Vicenza link of the Missione Nemo: Guido Tassan, a Second Lieutenant and Vittorio (Toio) Strukel, a Sergeant, Both of the Alpini Division “Julia” and both veterans of the Greek and Russian campaigns. On Christmas night the Candias wanted us all to have supper with them. For the occasion Toio held up a German lorry on a bridge, had the three soldiers on board give up their arms, which he threw into the river below, commandeered a kilo tin of butter and sent them, much relieved to be still alive and free on their way. “Finding butter in shops” he explained to us “is much more difficult these days.”
Another occasion for legitimate human contact came with the letters from l’Ingegnere to his family, evacuated in Castelfranco Veneto, some twenty miles away, that the courier from Milan gave me to deliver. There not only I enjoyed the forgotten delight of a proper lunch, complete with table cloth, china and silver but after it I was allowed to walk twice around the city walls with the two Elia daughters, Lia and Giuli, both blonde, pretty and witty.
But the couriers usually brought me more demanding requests, mostly to do with the flow of supplies to the German Forces holding the Gothic Line South of Bologna. By then all the bridges across the Po had been bombed out of service and the Allies had complete control of the sky over northern Italy. In order to bring their
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reinforcements and supplies the Germans had to form convoys of lorries moving only at night and to cross the Po on ferries or on pontoon bridges their Engineers put together at dusk and took apart at dawn, camouflaging the sections along the banks. One of our tasks was to identify the units to which the vehicles in the convoy belonged and possibly their load by deciphering the insignia on their tailboard as well as spotting the hidden barges for the future attention of the allied planes. It reminded me of my schoolboy days stamp collecting except that it all had to be memorized, as getting caught with a catalogue of that sort would have been unhealthy. I recall to date a white ibex on a blue shield indicating a Division of Alpenjaeger.
The other part of the exercise was to locate the daytime pontoon moorings. During one of these treasure hunts, as I was pedalling along a river bank one arctic December morning, I was stopped by a German Lieutenant pedalling in the opposite direction. Quickly satisfied by my false papers and obviously as hungry as I was for a chat, he asked me to sit with him out of the wind, in a sunny cranny of the bank and asked me what I was doing before the war. “Architectural student” I told him. “Me too, what year?” “First.” “Me too.” and so we talked a while about courses, exams and professors. All very friendly. Then, without any question from me, he started saying that he was in charge of a section of a bridge, that he had just finished putting his pontoons to bed “just around the corner, by those poplars” and he was off to his breakfast. I knew that within a few days I would have him bombed and was feeling a traitor and a murderer. I hope the Allied pilots missed him, a fairly frequent occurrence anyway, at least him if not his barges.
In reality at that time, given the strange war I was fighting, my personal relations with the Germans were quite good. I often managed to save myself long hours of cold pedalling by getting a lift on a Wehrmacht lorry, practically the only vehicles circulating then on the Italian roads. It also saved me the bother of showing my papers at the road blocks manned by fascist republican troops: the Germans had a healthy contempt for them and would take no nonsense such as being checked by them. The only price to pay was long afternoons in the back of a lorry singing Lili Marlene with the boys, a lovely song in any case. As I was always pretending a very limited or no knowledge of German, their unguarded chatter would occasionally provide useful snatches of information on their trade routes, units and general moods.
Once though the price risked being higher: one evening at Carmignano di Brenta, on the detour to the ford around a bombed bridge, we were attacked by three American planes. Lying in a wet field, trying to be as flat as a leaf, I was following with one eye the long parallel lines of bits of turf jumping up, coming near, going by and going away again with the deafening roar of the engines. The blighters would swoop down, shoot, go up, turn around and come down again and again. This was the only time during my whole war when I experienced real, physical, gut-gripping fear: a strange split between my head, coolly trying to calculate if the next line of approaching bullets would pass me by or stitch me down for good on those stubbles and my body lying there rigid with the expectation of the unthinkable. Besides it seemed idiotic to get killed by the Allies. I believe the technical term is “friendly fire” but I can assure you that, at least when you are at the wrong end of it, friendliness is
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not the prevailing feeling. Eventually, inspired by God or by their fuel indicators, they went away: many Germans lying dead all around, many wounded screaming, the lorries burning. I picked up my bicycle, miraculously intact, and pedalled away thinking thoughts of a non-heroic nature.
During another trip to the Po I spent one night at an inn in Revere requisitioned as transit lodgings for German officers. My papers as an Organization Todt technician entitled me to stay there. I knew that if Captain De Haag, who had so carefully instructed me on security, ever came to know about it, he would fall off his chair but the temperature outside and a thick fog preventing the search for a safer alternative, joined with the subtle temptation to enjoy a warm bed at Hitler’s expenses prevailed. In fact it all turned out to be very easy: the Feldwebel in charge as concierge gave my papers half a look and handed me my key. The next morning breakfast complete with sausage!
Another close encounter with Germans is a very different story. I had gone to sleep one night in a cow shed near San Bonifacio: a clean conscience, many miles on my bike and the cattle’s cosy warmth granted me a long, deep, serious sleep. As I woke up at dawn I realized that about thirty German infantrymen had joined me unnoticed during the night and were still happily snoring on the straw all around me. I crept out as quietly as I could but, as I was tiptoeing across the courtyard towards my bicycle, one of my bedfellows came out and approached me. “You are a Partisan.” he said. Like Saint Peter in Haifa’s courtyard I firmly denied such a shocking notion. “Never mind” he told me “I am an Austrian musician. Good luck and take care.” and walked back into the stable. I did not wait to find out why he would feel the need to act like that, so I am still wondering.
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[Photograph of a document in German with caption]: 9. Exemption from fascist military service
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[Photograph of a document in Italian with caption]: 16, Decoding of radio messages with information on German fortification works sent by me to complete drawings sent via Switzerland.
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[Photograph with caption]: 15, Lieutenant Commander Emilio Elia, twice MAVM, Knight of Ordine Militare di Savoia,Head of Missione Nemo Op. Sand II
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[Photograph with caption]: 14, Gino Prinetti Castelletti MOVM, at la Bergamina Partisan Officer killed in action in 1944
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[Photograph with caption]: 13, Ferdinando Tacoli, MAVM, a cousin. Partisan Officer killed in action in 1944
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[Photograph with caption]: 12, Paolo Carpi at about 10 in a portrait by his father, Aldo Carpi. Deported to Flossenburg, murdered at Gross Rosen at 17
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[Photograph with caption]: 11, Membership card of the Quartet Society
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[Photograph of a document in Italian with caption]: 10, Permit to circulate on a bicycle
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Chapter 3. A TIME OF TRIALS
Until the first week of January 1945 everything had gone well. I had drawn about a hundred kilometres of my defence line as far as the southern tip of the Euganei hills, passed on a good deal of assorted information to our couriers or to another radio operator of Missione Nemo based in Ceggia, on the mainland near Venice, and generally I could think I had spent my time usefully. I had earned my keep.
On the 9th of January, as I was having some lunch at an inn of Este, the GNR, Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana, the local fascist police, came in to check ration cards. Having happily accepted all my false papers, they ran me to ground on my only legitimate one, my ration card. With the excuse of making it fit into my wallet I had cut off the top of it, where my real name appeared: I did not know though that a code number in small print in the bottom corner indicated the province where it had been issued, Como in my case. All our false identity papers purported to be issued by some Municipality in southern Italy, that had by then already been liberated, so that checking on them was not possible. The outcome of all this was my arrest on a charge of stealing ration cards.
A little bit of luck was still on my side as at that hour of the day the commanding officer of the local GNR station had gone to his lunch. I got locked in his office while they went to fetch him. Seeing that this was on not too high a first floor, I thought I might not wait for him and, picking up a nice pair of woollen gloves that were on his desk and could well instead see me through the rest of that winter, I hung on my fingertips from the window sill and jumped. Not difficult. Back at the inn I grabbed my bicycle-cum-archive and lowered any previous record on the Este to Padua run in spite of a snowfall beginning just then and the need to dive into a side ditch or behind some hedge whenever I heard an engine approaching from behind. Luckily there was not much traffic and, possibly, my petty larceny was not deemed worthy of a pursuit in that weather. My next problem was how to get back into Padua through the road blocks with no papers. I could not think of anything brighter than waiting till darkness fell and swimming across the river, luckily not very wide, holding the bicycle high above my head so as not to wet the precious maps inside it. Until many years later, when I rashly tried a dip in the Gruensee above Zermatt, it was the coldest swim of my life. On the other hand snow must have also helped me by discouraging the patrols that used to go around during curfew. I could get back without other adventures to the Jesuit Fathers’ student hostel where I had my current digs.
Having spent the next day drying my clothes on heaters that miraculously were still working, I eventually made my mistake. By the rules I should have waited for the arrival of our courier with my new set of papers but I was impatient, thinking that the
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next Allied push would start any day soon and that General Alexander obviously could not go to sleep at night if he had not received my latest delivery of decorated maps. In the evening I went to a bar where I knew I could find Pierre, a Frenchman from Alsace, who was working for Organization Speer, the German transport agency, The previous weeks he had passed me a lot of information on the movement of the convoys of lorries that were passing through Padua on their way to supply the forces on the Bologna front and, above all he had given me the key to many of the symbols on the tailboards of lorries, enabling me to identify several units, Our relationship had always been ambiguous: certainly I had not told him who I was or what I was doing but it must have been obvious that my curiosity and his replies could not have been innocent.
I decided to trust him further and asked him to steal from his office the blank form of an Ausweis that would normally satisfy a German control even if, by itself, it was not always sufficient with the fascist police. We agreed to meet the next evening at the entrance to a cinema. As he shook my hand a dozen men from the Feldgendarmerie, the German Military Police, appeared from every direction, fully equipped with maschine-pistole and crescent shaped metal plaques around their necks, like so many Sherry decanters. Obviously Pierre had reported me: I shall never know how or why although the following course of events led me to believe he had not deliberately been playing a double game with me. I suspect that, having been caught as he pinched my Ausweis, he had reported me for that only, without mentioning our previous conversations, that in any case would have put him too in an awkward spot. Whatever may have been, God forgive him. Between the cinema and a waiting car, thankful for the blackout, I manage to drop a couple of bits of paper, listing phone numbers I did not want seen by unfriendly eyes, by slipping them down a leg of my trousers through a pocket that we kept slit for that purpose.
That 12th of January in any case was not our family’s lucky day. I learned later that in the morning an Allied aircraft had dropped a single bomb on the country house of that same grandmother Elisabetta, who had looked after my brother and me during our period in Como, killing seven people, for no apparent reason at all.
First stop was at the Feldgendarmerie station nearby: some routine slapping accompanied some standard questions by the duty officer and a promise that the next morning they would hand me over to the SD, SicherheitsDienst, the military branch of the Gestapo. “They know how to make you talk.” he said. He was mistaken but I did not know that yet. They gave it a good try anyway. The next morning they came, three of them: they bundled me into a car and we drove without a word to their headquarter, only a few blocks away, previously a clinic, requisitioned for their purpose. Still without a word they took me to the basement, tied my hands behind my back, bound my ankles together, pushed me into a cubicle one metre by one metre by one metre, slammed the door, pulled a bolt and went away. There I was neatly trussed up, in total darkness, no getaway in sight this time. When at last they took me out again and brought me upstairs to the office where I would be questioned, I realized from a calendar on the wall that I had spent four days and four nights in my black hole. I could not have guessed at that: I had lost all notion of time, possibly
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because for some of it I might have dozed or passed out. On the down side the cold, the constant cramps in the shoulders and the stomach and a bleak perspective of what lay ahead, on the bright side lots of time for thinking and the blessing of an extraordinary mental clarity, such as I have never experienced again, be it adrenalin or whatever. I was playing in my head a sort of imaginary game of chess: if they ask me A it means that they know B and I can answer C without causing damage and so on, through all the ramifications I could think of. In reality things turned out to be a lot easier, as I came to realize early during the questioning that all they had to go on was my request to the Frenchman to get me a blank Ausweis.
Another problem I had in the meantime – I hope you will forgive me for mentioning it but it was then very much on my mind – was to work out how, in that confined space and all tied up, I could avoid dirtying myself, something I suspected my hosts had planned in order to humiliate me before questioning. Well, I am glad to report that, thanks to some contortions worthy of Houdini, I managed to disappoint them. In any case I think that the time I spent ripening in that cellar played more to my advantage than theirs and that, had I been questioned immediately after the shock of being arrested, I would have found it more difficult to get through.
On the morning of the 17th of January they pulled me out of my hole and dragged me to an office on the second floor to be questioned. At first sight it was just an office like any other: in front of me a desk with the Lieutenant in charge of my case behind it, and a door to another office where I could hear telephones ringing and typewriters ticking. On my left the door to the corridor, on my right a widow and behind me a shelf with some equipment that I took for field telephones and two SS with an unfriendly air. I was in the middle of the room, held by two more SS with rubber-coated clubs about one metre long. During my meditations in the cellar I had come to the conclusion that I should have every reply, even the most obvious or innocent, appear to be dragged out of a reluctant me, at the limit of my capacity to bear. The inherent weakness of questioning by torture, I had reckoned, was that the torturer is bound to believe what the tortured says when he gives in, or the whole system is pointless. That meant holding back my replies to each question for the time necessary to make them credible,
So began a long day, my personal “longest day”: the officer asking his questions in heavily accented Italian, the two beside me busy with their clubs and boots, the two behind, having connected two electric cables to my right and left middle fingers, turning the handle of the dynamos that, on entering the room, I had mistaken for field telephones. Question, blows, shock, down stiff on the floor, kicked back onto my feet, all repeated with monotonous regularity until I could think of a sufficiently persuasive but harmless reply. In the meantime though I was learning. Firstly, and with great relief, that they neither knew or even suspected anything of my real activities, which made it easier for me to give them misleading replies, in order to lighten, as I optimistically thought I might, the charges against me and, above all, to keep them off the scent of Missione Nemo. I also soon learned, equally with relief, that one can get used to electric shocks. Their effect diminished with the passing of
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time and repetition: the first ones knocked me down rigid and shaking; by the afternoon I was faking the scene in order to gain a few seconds of respite. And furthermore I learned that the pain of blows can be borne, if one turns it into a blanket of dull ache and finally I could persuade myself that the fear of imagined torture is a worse devil than the actual thing. At one point, caught off balance by a kick from my left-winger, my knee snapped: getting up and standing became more difficult but the evening was near.
All this was going on in a sort of unreal world, while normal, everyday office activity was carried on all around us: phone calls for the Lieutenant, very welcome breathing intervals for me, secretaries from next door coming and going with papers to be signed and all that. I was, after all, just a boring in-file for that day. One of these SS girls at one point put out her cigarette on my cheek. She was very cool, there was no hate that I could detect on her face: I might have been an ashtray. To realize at some point that I was much more motivated than they were gave me a great strength. When I gathered that my replies were gradually persuading them that I was just a coward, trying to get hold of an Ausweis in order to dodge being drafted into the fascist army for fear of being sent to fight, I realized I was winning the match, annoying though it was to have to swallow their contempt. There were though a number of questions connected to recent events or acts of resistance in Padua, about which I knew nothing at all: I suppose for this very reason my honest and sincere denials were the hardest to get believed. Among other depravities there was the distribution of anti-German leaflets, a crime of which – I swear – I was totally innocent. This eventually became the main charge and the justification of my sentence. At last they were tired and I was led back to the cellar. This time though I was put in a regular cell, one and a half by three metres, with a cot, a pot and a blanket. Luxury! Stopping in a bathroom on the way down I did not recognize my face in the mirror.
The next morning, back upstairs, I found to my great relief that everything had turned quite bland, at least by comparison: the Lieutenant went over the minutes, clarifying a point here and there, repeated a few questions where my answers had not been fully convincing, a few blows were administered now and again, pro forma, and then he announced that I was sentenced to death by hanging, the execution remaining suspended until some anti-German act occurred in Padua. I do not want you to believe I am bragging but, truly, my reaction was just one of total disbelief. I may have been still groggy from the blows but I was absolutely certain that things like that just could not happen to me. I could disregard his chatter. After all you see I was dead right: I am still here to tell the tale.
I have sometimes been asked why I did not speak. I have asked myself the same question for that matter, when the whole story was over and I could look back upon it with some detachment. There is no simple, single answer. I obviously did not want to harm my comrades, I wanted to be able to meet again my family and my friends without the shame of having let down the side and those who trusted me. But I also
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refused to speak because Amatore Sciesa had said “Tiremm innanz”
[footnote 1 – Amatore Sciesa, a Milanese carpenter was sentenced to death in 1852 for conspiring against Austrian rule. On the way to his execution the party stopped before his house and he was offered a reprieve if he gave the names of fellow conspirators. His reply, in Milanese dialect, “Let’s carry on” I have always found a remarkable example of understatement in the circumstances and has become a classic of Risorgimento lore.]
and because Gary Cooper in “The life of a Bengal Lancer”
[footnote 2 – A Hollywood classic of the thirties in a Kiplingean mood.]
had not spoken when the wicked Pathans, or whatever they were, planted burning sticks under his fingernails. Ugh! Luckily they did not do that to me. But, in the end, the bottom line says pride, stubborn, bloody-minded pride. It had boiled down to a match between Sturmfuehrer Danzer or Tanzer – I never even learned his proper name – and me and I, Francesco Gnecchi Ruscone, will not be buggered by a Tyrolean cop. Forgive the language but it is no polite tea party I am talking about and, if I am to convey faithfully what my motives and feelings were, well, this is it.
From then on began my life as a prisoner in solitary confinement. In the beginning I did not mind. I had a cot I could stretch on, a blanket, much to think about, a broken nose and a broken knee to nurse and a few lesser wounds and bruises to lick. Any attempt to communicate with neighbouring cells by the good old method of banging a shoe on the wall soon proved frustratingly fruitless, beyond the awareness that somebody else was there, trying equally in vain to do the same. The distribution of our daily potato, single, gone black and slimy with frost, boiled in saltless water, was done by opening one door at a time. There were soon however other chances of meeting the other inmates. On those frosty mornings our SS often could not get their cars to start, their poor ersatz fuel being un-cooperative. On such occasions we were rudely dragged out of our cells and made to push until the engines spluttered into action. This exercise did not help my knee, that I had wrapped up in a knitted woollen scarf as tight as it would hold, but for nothing on earth I would have given up my chance of meeting the others, even if all we could swap were a few surreptitious words.
Some mornings though as time went by, if our SS were in a good mood, once the cars had gone off on their no doubt iniquitous errands, they would let us stand around in the sun for some minutes or, with their peculiar sense of humour, they would march us to another courtyard to show us the tree where they would eventually hang us. Maybe they thought it was educational but in that crazy, somehow unreal world we would play the game too and soon the trip to the tree became a sort of macabre ritual joke. As the prisoners at the SD Headquarter were few and the SS minding us were also few, our relationship soon acquired a less impersonal character. One of them in particular, in peacetime – he told us – a footballer in Vienna, named Zwettler, was untypically hearty, almost friendly, but to him we instinctively, immediately, reacted negatively, suspecting him of playing the good cop, of trying to get out of us from trust what we had not given under torture.
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A strange discovery we made on those mornings was that being in jail awaiting execution gave us a freedom of speech that nobody outside enjoyed those days: we could not be sentenced to death twice. We once told them that the Partisans were fighting for their freedom too: they were not amused but the whole reward for our noble feelings was only an extra ration of kicks. Another morning we found in the courtyard a newspaper saying that the Russians had taken Breslau, the first German city to fall. We improvised a little celebration chanting “They are coming!” and agitating our right fists with the left hands inside the elbow. More kicks and the suspension of our little courtyard gatherings was all that followed.
One day a new batch of prisoners was brought in for questioning and, in order to make room for them we had to be transferred to the Padua main prison in piazza Castello: from isolation to overcrowding. In a room eight by eight metres that, judging by the number of cots, was originally planned for fourteen inmates, we were fifty two. At night an uninterrupted carpet of of palliasses: ours – last come last served -were nearest to the latrine, regularly blocked and flooding, and so always damp with a fragrance that soon, I am afraid, became ours. After the loneliness of solitary confinement it was however a feast to be talking to mankind again, represented there by the interesting variety of the other fifty one.
Undisputed deans among us were two old life convicts. One claimed an improbable involvement in the assassination of King Umberto I, in the year 1900. Obviously being a “political” had become fashionable. The other was the real VIP: foreman of the establishment’s bakery that produced our daily loaves, he always brought back some to hand out with regal largesse and inscrutable criteria. There were farmers from nearby villages, guilty of concealing calves, pigs or wheat from requisition and nobody understood, they least of all, why they had ended up in the German section of the prison. They had for some reason the privilege of receiving food parcels from home and were moderately generous in sharing them. I used to pay for my purchases with my daily ration of two Milit cigarettes: because of the craving of the many smokers in there the rate of exchange was very favourable to me. One of them was also building elaborate snares with bits of string on the windows’ iron bars to catch pigeons: in my few weeks there only one unfortunate bird got caught. Roasted on a fire of splinters from the cots and palliasse stuffing and shared among fifty two, it provided a welcome, if symbolic, increase of protein to our diet as well as a convivial occasion to interrupt the drab monotony of our daily routine.
There was an extraordinary pickpocket. After a long and successful career in Paris he had saved enough to buy himself a comfortable retirement in Sorrento. One day though, while on a tram in Naples, the old itch proved stronger than wisdom and he got caught. While he was awaiting trial the Germans began their retreat from that city and took him out of jail to dig trenches for them. A combination of bad luck and administrative tangles and there he was, still in their hands, in Padua, a year and a half later. Every morning while he went through the instalments of his autobiography – and very entertaining he was – he would pull my handkerchief from my pocket to return it with a bright smile of professional pride. He must have done it about ten
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times while I was in piazza Castello: never once, however expecting I had become, did I catch him. A genius!
Salvatore Cacciola, a Sicilian member of the anti-fascist Republican Party, who had been in jail for some years, was in charge of the prison’s library, to which however we from the SD had no access: we were not allowed to go out of our room. With him and another “political”, Mario Mosconi, a Christian-democrat Partisan from Padua, we would endlessly study plans for escaping, as imaginative as they were impractical. Luckily we never had a chance to enact the boldest of them: climbing to the roof during an air-raid, that sometimes caused some confusion in the establishment, and diving into the river below. We would have probably shattered at the bottom of few feet of water.
The real tragedies I had to witness in those days spent in the piazza Castello jail did not occur among us. In two or three rooms further along the gallery from the stairs were held the deserters from the Wehrmacht. Every morning, soon after the “Aufstehen”, when we lined up and stood to be counted, four or five of them would be dragged by some SS past our window on the gallery, most of them screaming and crying, to their execution. Some would even turn to us, as if we could help them. Some would call their mothers, often in languages we could not recognize, possibly Czechs or Poles forcibly conscripted. I am still haunted by the memory of those deaths, that probably for many of them could not even be offered to a cause.
In the meantime my future was being shaped elsewhere. Through the prison’s Chaplain I had managed to send a message to my family, telling them where I was and trying to reassure them on my situation. Father was then not at home. He, mother’s brother and a few friends had been arrested by the Brigate nere, “Black Brigades”, a sort of fascist militia, more thuggish than politically fanatical, on a vague charge of helping the Partisans, and taken to prison in Como. Luckily, one of the friends arrested was a Spanish gentleman, Prince Alfonso Pio Falcò, a most improbable conspirator, who owned a country house near la Bergamina. This provoked the immediate intervention of the Spanish Consul. General Franco’s government was one of the few that had some sort of diplomatic representation with Mussolini’s republic in northern Italy. This managed to get everybody released after a few days. For father though staying home would have been unwise.
In that same period my luck turned again to good. A member of Missione Nemo intercepted a German dispatch rider who carried in his bag a copy of the minutes of my interrogation from the SD of Padua to the SD of Milan. They thus came to know where I was – to them, until then, I had just missed my rendezvous with the courier and vanished – and that I had not spoken. The cautionary reduction of activity of the Vicenza link could be raised after ten days.
When my friends in the Missione also brought mother the news of my arrest, they arranged a contact with an SS Colonel of the Milan SD Headquarters. This gentleman, on payment of a ransom – he requested it in gold coins, not banknotes –
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agreed to organize my transfer from Padua to Milan, where he would set me free. These Nibelungen heroes, seeing that the time for a final dash to safety was approaching, were proving no better than the last Calabrian kidnapper, loyalties be damned. I had to promise mother, when she later told me the whole story, that I would not seek him after the war: she had given her word as part of the deal. I had to keep it. Reluctant. Nor was he a lonely case: I had realized during the last period of my stay in Padua that with increasing frequency the arrested brought into the SD cells were businessmen or well to do people with no connection whatever with the Resistance, captured for the sole purpose of extorting a ransom.
I had returned then, after a few weeks in piazza Castello, to the SD Headquarters and to the routine of pushing lorries to a start and visiting “the tree”. One of those days happened to be my twenty-first birthday, the moment when, at the time, one came of age. One of the Italian women working in the kitchen had mysteriously come to know about it: during the morning pause in the courtyard she approached me and slipped me a small bottle of beer. No Dom Pérignon was ever enjoyed more.
One morning at the end of March I was called up to the upper storeys where I found an SS Colonel from Milan with an order to escort me there. Obviously I did not know what had happened between him and my mother and I found his appearance rather alarming. Would I have to be interrogated all over again? Had I perhaps been connected to other members of Missione Nemo possibly arrested in Milan? It was surprising enough to see that an officer of that rank had bothered to come to collect me and come alone. Even my Padua jailers seemed impressed. It came even more as a puzzling surprise when I realized, after walking some distance from the SD building, that he had no transport of his own: pistol in hand he stopped a German lorry full of flour bags and ordered the Feldwebel at the wheel to take us on board. I was not unfamiliar with the manners of the SS when dealing with the Wehrmacht’s other ranks: I had witnessed quite a few instances of it in the previous months, but the circumstances of my transfer made it all very confusing. In any case there was nothing I could do except obey his instructions, my damaged knee barring any thought of bolting away, all the more so as he appeared extremely nervous, something I can now fully understand. In any case he looked like a trigger-happy character. He was all along the journey deeply irritated by the fact that I kept falling asleep on the flour bags.
As we arrived in piazza Loreto, a square then in the outskirts of Milan, and we got off the lorry, he told me without any explanation: ”You are free, go home.” I was more confused than ever but I did not wait for him to have second thoughts. I just limped away.
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[Photograph of a document in Italian with caption]: 23, Proposal for a decoration by my commander
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[Photograph of a document in Italian with caption]: 22, Pass signed by Lieutenant Commander Elia for my mission in Alto Adige.
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[Photograph with caption]: 21, Not really an Alpino, not really a Lieutenant, a pipe smoker in baggy pants
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Photograph with caption]: 20, Captured German Officers marched through the centre of Milan
before delivery to the Allies.
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[Photograph with Caption]: 19, Lieutenant Guido Tassan MAVM, Head of the Vicenza link of Missione Nemo
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[Photograph with caption]: 18, Alberto Tosi, Commander of Brigata Marescotti
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[Photograph with caption]: 17, Decima Mas identity card conquered by Guido Mosterts and doctored with his photograph by Missione Nemo.
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Chapter 4. A TIME OF VICTORIES
As might have been gathered from these notes, mother was a rather indomitable person: she lived through all that period with extraordinary courage and determination. The other side of the coin was that she was extremely reluctant to display her feelings. I am much less indomitable and was prepared, on getting home, for a moving reunion. Well, her first words were:” You need a bath, son.” I suppose that after three months of SD hospitality such a statement was undeniable. But it was also an order to be obeyed at once. The celebrations that followed were rather more sedate and dignified than I had anticipated.
Soon afterwards I went into hospital: my nose had taken care of itself, I could breathe again through both nostrils, but my leg had somehow glued itself together, remaining rigid: to regain its articulation I needed some surgery. If during my interrogations in Padua I had behaved with a modicum of dignity, during the operation in Milan I cursed and howled like a butchered pig. It might be said in my defence that in Milan, at the end of March 1945, not much anaesthetic was being wasted on such frivolous operations. Besides I did not have any more to prove something to myself or others. I came out with a plaster cast from foot to hip, complete with a little window over the knee to dress the wound, and strict instructions to rest and keep out of trouble. I more or less obeyed but also re-established contact with my friends.
They certainly had not been idle during my absence and were then busily preparing the insurrection of Milan to coincide with the Allies’ attack on the Gothic line. Procuring enough weapons to equip the growing ranks of our units was at that point a primary task. In urban areas this could not be done by parachute drops and so arms had to be taken from the enemy. This frequently entailed cooperation with other Partisan units, something that was not always easy. Different attitudes and different views for Italy’s political future were generally put to one side for the sake of joint action but the possibility of friction, sometimes dangerous, could not be discounted. A typical example was a road block set up by Guido Mosterts with two Partisans of a communist brigade based near the Politecnico. They stopped a member of X Mas, an elite unit of Mussolini’s republican Forces, and took his weapons, uniform and papers. Guido suddenly realized that his two partners were going to shoot the man as he was scuttling away, so he turned his gun on them saying: ”If you shoot him I shoot you.” The man got away but the parting between Guido and the other two was less than friendly. Guido was very proud of his acquired X Mas card: he had it doctored by the Missione’s specialist, substituting the photograph with his own and used it – it allowed him to circulate freely with weapons – till the end of the war. His real prize though was to set the principle that you do not shoot someone who has surrendered.
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This, I am afraid, was by no means a general view in those days. On either side. It helps to be brought up to know that some things are just not done.
For me those weeks of inaction were also a time for taking stock. I felt guilty about the manner of my liberation, not so much because it had not come as one of the romantic escapes I had dreamed of in jail but because I knew only too well how many others would not have a similar chance. I knew what it could cost them: the “tree” was still there. I had had an unfair advantage. At the same time I hated having those very thoughts, that amounted to a lack of gratitude for what my parents, mother in particular, had done for me. She never said anything to me then or later but I knew what it must have cost her in terms of pride to beg for having me set free by such a thug. I felt in debt again, lame and idle. Useless.
While I was mending I spent most afternoons in the houses of friends where daughters or sisters were rolling up bandages in preparation for the coming fights. We boys were not always polite, certainly somewhat sarcastic, in expressing our reluctance to avail ourselves of their production. With the approaching of the final insurrection our group, in the meantime swollen and upgraded to Brigata Marescotti, had been asked to set up a proper structure, more formal and similar to that of the other units, of which we old boys should be the cadre. So one afternoon we held a constituent meeting to share out the tasks. Alberto Tosi, who not only had a brilliant curriculum of gallant actions but also seemed to be the most capable among us to give us some form of discipline and organization, became our Commander. Guido and I, with roughly half a Brigade, thirty five men each, his Deputies, while Fabio Semenza, whom we suspected to have read Benedetto Croce, our Political Commissar. Not that a group like ours felt any great need for one, but the orders were that we should fill that post too. I must add that he was commendably discreet in his role and, if he ever tried to indoctrinate us, we never noticed.
On the evening of April 25th the order to move came at last. That afternoon I had managed to get hold of a pair of garden shears and I cut myself out of my plaster cast. We all gathered that night in the office of Fabio Semenza’s father and at dawn we set off. Fabio’s sister opened the door, there to find on the doorstep a soldier of Mussolini’s republican army and so she took the first prisoner of Milan’s Liberation. He was a young man just as perplexed as we were by all those events and so, for lack of better ideas and urgently in need of one, we promoted him driver of one of our cars. He served us loyally for a few days until he disappeared, he and the car. He now probably brags of his Partisan merits and glory.
Our first target was a German Kommandantur in the very elegant via Sant’Andrea, now the heart of Milan’s fashion boutiques world. Guido’s half brigade at the top of via Sant’Andrea, about a hundred metres from our building, mine clambering over the rubble of a bombed house at the back, to cover the garden facade. When I finally managed to persuade my young enthusiasts not to waste all the scarce ammunition we had in destroying the shutters of probably empty, undefended windows – no one was firing back – I went along to decide with Alberto and Guido what to do next. Too late.
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Guido had got tired of waiting and thinking I was engaged in some kind of hard battle, was walking quietly, strolling almost, down the middle of the road. As he got in front of the building, he took a hand grenade from the pocket of his mac and threw it on the gate. While we were expecting the worst a window opened, then another and another until the whole facade blossomed with white towels. We rushed into the courtyard to find a number of Colonels and Generals, with their red stripes down their trousers. After a few minutes of mutual embarrassment, neither side knowing how to address the other, they realized we were not the sort that would execute or manhandle them and started quoting the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. I did not remember their quoting it to me when I was their guest in Padua but victory had made me generous and was going to let it pass until one asked me to give them some men to carry their luggage. Frankly too much. Geneva or no Geneva, I was not going to let him play the arrogant bastard: I indulged in a bit of comedy. Standing on his toes and looking down on him – I happened to be inches taller – as haughty as I knew how, I said: “This concession will not be granted”. Looking back on it now I do not know which of the two was more ridiculous. In reality it was clear from the start that they were not the sort that would start doing a Leonidas at Thermopilae: it turned out that their Kommandantur had been in charge of monitoring and requisitioning the production of Italian industries. All that brass were in fact just bureaucrats disguised as warriors.
Their quick surrender left our Brigata without orders for the next move until, towards the end of the morning, we were told to go and conquer a garage a couple of blocks away. Meanwhile the captured officers had to be taken to Hotel Regina, until that morning the SS and SD Headquarters in Milan, where they were to await the arrival of the first Allied troops. This task fell on me with two of our new lads, so, with them and a couple of dozen prisoners I limped away. As we turned into piazza della Scala, just in front of the Opera Theatre, we were met by a group of enthusiasts showing all their eagerness to lynch my prisoners. I had managed to fight my whole war without ever firing a shot in anger and this was the only time I ever aimed a gun at anyone. Luckily I must have looked ferocious enough because my bluff worked and just a little further down the road my little flock, complete with self-carried suitcases, was delivered intact.
With my two lads I went then to our appointed garage, anxious not to miss another surrender: I was beginning to enjoy them. To our surprise we found that there was just the three of us besieging the garage. The situation required caution, if for no other reason, because on a small terrace above the entrance the Germans had set up an anti-aircraft gun whose four 20mm barrels had been turned downwards. It looked business-like enough to stop tanks and we were at the street corner twenty metres away. I stuck my head out from behind a column just for the short time necessary to yell a pro forma invitation to surrender, that went unanswered. I considered going to the top floor of the building overlooking the garage and lobbing our stock of a few hand grenades onto that magnificent gun but even for that I decided we needed a force of more than the three of us. All we could do was to wait behind our street corner, making enough noise to let them believe there were more of us, in the hope of
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discouraging any notion of a sortie. Another unexpected task was to prevent odd impromptu and unattached volunteers that kept appearing as the day went on, with unbelievably fancy weapons, from taking foolish initiatives. At last the Brigata turned up. While I was delivering our morning prisoners they had been diverted to occupy a hotel that would become our permanent base for that period. At that point our renewed invitation to surrender was wisely accepted, avoiding us the need of doing a Charge of the Light Brigade up the street. Our tally of prisoners this time was very modest both in numbers and rank compared with our first victory but we suddenly found ourselves the most motorized Brigata of Milan’s Resistance.
To spoil our fun the porter of the building next door came to tell us that its cellars had been mined by the Germans. Guido and I reluctantly decided that it fell to us to go and see and, if necessary, defuse what we found. We lit two candles supplied by the porter, who however declined the invitation to guide us, and descended into what seemed an endless black labyrinth, a little uncertain because neither of us had the faintest idea of what a mine looked like, let alone how to defuse it. It was naturally a false alarm. As we resurfaced we found that the Brigata had disappeared again and we were left with a small force of green recruits to hold the garage. All sorts of rumours were coming over the grapevine, the most alarming about some German Divisions, trapped in Piedmont and Liguria, planning to re-take Milan in order to open a passage towards Tyrol.
Such concerns were however quite remote from our half-dozen. Some occasional scattered fire that we could hear every now and then sounded more like exuberant celebrations or some road block panicking about shadows than all out fighting. So Guido and I decided we had had a long and busy day; after posting our sentries and establishing their turns, we dined on a tin of green peas and a bottle of French Cognac that the Germans had kindly left behind and settled for sleep. It did not last long: at about midnight one of our sentries, a law student by the name of Simonazzi, decided that our conquered gun was too beautiful not to give it a try and, turning its four barrels towards what he thought was the sky, demolished a kitchen on the top floor of the building opposite. Law students are not so good as we of the Politecnico at judging angles. Luckily the flat was uninhabited. We never found out precisely what repercussions that fracas had around the city; for our part, we decided that we would keep quiet about it but our night’s rest was over.
We then spent a few days trying, not always successfully, to defend our cars from the greed of other Partisan units, while the rest of the Brigata Marescotti, only a few hundred metres away in their posh hotel, became engaged in policing the centre of Milan. “Nemo”, “l’Ingegnere”, had become again Lieutenant Commander Emilio Elia and had been appointed Questore, head of Police for that province. He knew he could trust our civic virtues and discipline in operations that in those days could easily degenerate. Not a job I would have enjoyed judging by the accounts of our friends there: it involved mostly rounding up fascists and collaborators who had been reported by vindictive neighbours. It soon became clear though that being prisoners of Brigata Marescotti was a sure way of escaping not only summary execution but also
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the sort of cruel punishment some other units were indulging in, such as beatings or cutting off the hair of women who had been “horizontal collaborators”. We even had some voluntary surrenders. Our problem was mainly where to keep our prisoners as it was frequently difficult to deliver them immediately to the proper judicial authorities, that in those days were themselves rather erratic. Most just hung around one end of the hotel’s lounge, with one of our chaps nonchalantly keeping an eye on them. Those reputed more dangerous or who risked abduction by vengeful mobs we kept in the only room that had a steel door and a bolt on the outside: the small chamber in the basement at the bottom of the kitchen’s garbage chute. We considered that the risk of an occasional shower of potato peels or cabbage leaves was not too severe a retribution for their sins. I remember among them a journalist, named Asvero Gravelli, who in the previous months had distinguished himself on the fascist press with articles encouraging pitiless extermination of all political enemies. While he enjoyed our hospitality he rather gave the impression of hoping we had not read him or, at least, we had not become his disciples.
One evening, two or three days after the liberation of Milan, the first Allied jeep arrived at the door of our hotel. Being the linguist of the Brigata I was appointed to welcome our “guests”, as we proudly insisted in calling them. So a Major Wilcox, R.E. came to what we tried to pretend was our Mess and shared a bottle of Campari with us. He turned out to be a distinguished London architect and was very friendly when he discovered I was a budding colleague. Oddly enough two years later I was sent by the Milan Politecnico’s School of Architecture to represent it at the celebrations for the centenary of the Architectural Association. On entering its beautiful home in a Georgian Bloomsbury square the first person I met was Major Wilcox, now in the full splendour of his dinner jacket.
The liberation of Milan was over: in reality and with the exception of a few isolated episodes there had been very little fighting to speak of: the German Forces in Italy collapsed rather than surrendered some eight or ten days before Germany did, while for the fascists there ensued a general scrambling to disappear from sight. Out of it however emerged two things of which we felt we could be proud. We were well aware that it was not our victory: without the offensive of the Fifth American and the Eight British Armies across the Po Valley our insurrections could never have happened. Nevertheless, we had managed to halt the retreat of all German Forces South and West of Milan, several Divisions strong and still intact, and we had been able to show Major Wilcox our city governed by our Authorities and with the trams running. We felt it gave us the right to stand before him and invite him as a guest.
The next morning I was told that Mussolini had been shot and that his body, together with those of his mistress and of other fascist personalities were in piazza Loreto, the very same square in the outskirts where the SS Colonel who had brought me back from Padua had set me free one month earlier. I could not resist curiosity: I grabbed a bicycle and went to have a look. I came away at once without getting close, revolted by the sight of some canaille cursing, bespitting and kicking some corpses on the pavement, amidst a gloating mob. If those summary killings were Justice, and
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in some way I was prepared to admit they were in the reality of things and in the spirit of those days, without the formal guarantees of a trial, what was going on in that square was too crude and barbaric for me to accept. Furthermore it was cowardly: I wondered how many of them had been fascists until recently. My friends and I had not fought for that.
I was happy to get away from all that when that same day I was reclaimed by Missione Nemo. However we felt in Milan the war was not finished yet. In any case this was no more a clandestine meeting at a concert or at some odd street corner. I was summoned to the Questura, the Milan Police Headquarters. There I met Major Page, our liaison with British Intelligence, until now to us a just a fabled myth, who had been parachuted into the Milan racecourse a few days before the insurrection. Lieutenant Commander Elia gave me a paper requiring anyone concerned to give me assistance and instructed me to go at once to a certain castle in the Alps, in an area still in German hands, and retrieve, before they disappeared, forty crates of important documents from the Italian State Archives that the Abwehr, the German Secret Service, had taken from Rome at the time of the armistice. I suggested Guido Mosterts as a partner for the expedition: he could drive, an art that because of the limitations of war I had not yet learned and I knew he was not enjoying his current police tasks in Milan. We drove a good way into the night along the eastern shore of Lake Garda, overtaking endless columns of American lorries driving North until we realized near the morning that we were overtaking German lorries in retreat. In the general confusion nobody challenged us and at dawn we arrived at our castle without incidents.
Guido and I, discussing our task during the drive, had come to the conclusion that, considering our number, age, civilian clothes and no arms it would not do to act shyly or modestly. So as we arrived at the castle gate I jumped out of the car and ordered the SS sentry, in as authoritative a manner as I could manage, without giving him the time to say anything, to fetch his Commanding Officer. I was counting on the good old German habit of obeying a shouted order. It worked. A captain appeared after a few minutes and the only thing to do was to carry on our act. I waved our Missione Nemo pass at him, introduced us as Officers of the Allied Secret Services, an impudent beautification of reality, and ordered him to give us our forty crates. There he caught me off guard: he would agree to deliver the crates only after we accepted his surrender and that of his Company. That was awkward: after our experience in Milan we had learned how promptly on raising their hands Germans remember the Geneva Convention and we did not want to get stuck with having to guard and perhaps feed a Company of SS. A dialogue began that was pure comedy. “We only want those crates, the Brenner Pass is so near, why don’t you just go home?” we suggested. “I must consult the other officers.” Consultation negative. We realized after a while that, had they crossed over, they would have come under the German High Command in Germany and most probably deployed against the Red Army advancing from Vienna. They sensibly preferred a surrender this side of the Alps and a cosy American captivity. Faute de mieux the two of us would do. Flattering but embarrassing.
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From our personal point of view all this delay was becoming uncomfortable: how long would our bluff of authority last? Luckily at the end of the morning on the road at the bottom of the valley appeared the first Allied unit and – God bless them – it was a Company of Bersaglieri of the Divisione Legnano that had fought since 1944 with the British Eighth Army. Oh boy! Not only were they solving our immediate problems but was it good to see a hundred SS depose their arms at the feet not of British or American troops but of our Bersaglieri! After all Italians had had to swallow for a year and a half! Guido and I, now become just spectators, feeling a bit overcome by it all but also knowing that a finger in that pie had been ours, not from the top of a tank but with an old Fiat and a letter signed by “Nemo”. So at last the crates were ours, in fact a good deal more than forty. We had by then acquired a taste for giving orders, so we had the Commander of the Carabinieri, the Military Police of Divisione Legnano to come to our castle, handed him the crates and instructed him to have them delivered to the War Ministry in Rome. “How?” “Your problem.” With the Carabinieri’s receipt we returned to Milan. Mission accomplished.
We did not know that on that same morning, only a few miles up that road, in Merano, General Karl Wolff, Commander of the SS in Italy was anxiously waiting for news from the emissaries he had sent to Caserta to sign the surrender of all German Forces in Italy, against Hitler’s and Himmler’s orders and with the Wehrmacht Commanders uncertain until the last minute, a surrender that became effective a few days later on the second of May. Again on the same day Hitler blew his brain out and eight days later General Alfred Jodl signed the Reich’s unconditional surrender. The Second World War was officially over in Europe. As far as I was concerned though there remained a few loose ends. Taking care of them in an increasingly peace-time general mood became my life in the summer of 1945. Brigata Marescotti quickly wound up, gave up its armaments without fuss or ceremony and just melted away. Missione Nemo on the other hand was still in business, perhaps somewhat unofficially. Major Page had set up an office, not far from the Politecnico with a ravishingly attractive assistant, Miss Ann Whitaker from Salisbury.
Some time later Guido and I got called again by Lieutenant Commander Elia: waiting for us in his office was a Captain of the Granatieri. We did not know what to expect and were further puzzled by the fact that he was wearing a pre-armistice Italian uniform, that had looked totally normal less than two years before but by them looked like a curious revival. He was in any case extremely friendly: introduced himself as Augusto Premoli, ADC to HH Umberto, Prince of Piedmont and Lieutenant of the Realm. His mission was to tell us that among the crates we had liberated in our castle was the precious numismatic collection of King Vittorio Emanuele III, who was very grateful to us and that Prince Umberto wished to thank us in person and would we please proceed at once to Rome with him. It all seemed unreal, hard to believe but events out of the ordinary had been our daily diet for quite some time and this one seemed far more appealing than what we were used to. A curious coincidence: my great-grandfather, also Francesco Gnecchi, had been one of the greatest numismatist of the nineteenth century and had helped the King, then still
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Prince of Naples, to set up that collection. So in no time at all we picked up a car and drove off with Captain Premoli. It might be as well to explain that in those days the rules about property of cars were rather vague. Thousands that had been requisitioned by Germans and fascists and then abandoned, had promptly found new users: the distinction between “picking up” and stealing a car was more an aesthetic than a moral or legal one.
It took us nearly three days to get there. All the bridges were still either down, and that meant long detours on unknown, unmarked roads or consisted of makeshift affairs requiring queuing, caution and luck. The next morning Captain Premoli took us to the Quirinale Palace, that looked rather stark and looted, with no furniture around, frescoed room after frescoed room. Eventually in a room overlooking the garden we were received by Prince Umberto. He was extremely kind but surprised us by an almost shy manner: we, if not naturally shy, were certainly more than a little embarrassed especially when he asked us what we had been doing in all the previous months. We did not feel like recounting our activities in the style of official bulletins but neither could we bring ourselves to be too jocular. After all for every practical purpose he was our King. So after a bit of awkward and desultory conversation he gave each of us a small silver box decorated in enamel with his initial and crown and leave to go. In the room outside a very distinguished Court Gentleman told us that HRH had had the pleasure to make us Knights of the Crown of Italy. Wow!
We decided that some celebration would be in order beyond the rather formal toast that Captain Premoli and his wife had kindly arranged for us in their flat. Before leaving Milan we had collected some phone numbers of friends of friends and eventually found two girls who agreed to a picnic on the beach of Fregene .We were just over the first sand dunes when a British Sergeant on the next rise started gesticulating wildly in our direction and our cheerful waving back did not seem to mollify him. We stopped and he caught up. He informed us that the beach was still a minefield they were just beginning to clean up and that his opinion of us was not flattering. On this point he was so convincing that we almost considered driving onto the next mine as the easiest way out: we were however in no position to argue: we could only be grateful. We carefully reversed, retracing our tracks . The girls were not amused. End of picnic.
That trip to Rome was altogether not the high point of a happy relationship with Allied Authorities. On the way back we got arrested near Modena by the American Military Police for speeding and Guido, who was then driving, had to spend a rather uncomfortable night in the local jail, packed full of fascists who were not inclined to fraternize. The next morning what looked like an impressive Court Martial, after a solemn sermon on respect in a democracy of rules and regulations, sentenced Guido to twenty days or a fine of two thousand Lire, in those days something like a decent monthly pay. Luckily Captain Premoli had the cash and we could resume our journey. Our real worry had been that they might have asked awkward questions about the ownership of the car but luckily this did not seem to be their concern.
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Back at Missione Nemo I was told by Captain De Haag that I was now a Second Lieutenant and I was accordingly issued a uniform of sorts, that turned out to be rather a strange collection of surplus khaki garments from the stores of half a dozen armies. I was especially displeased by a pair of baggy trousers that looked suspiciously like an Afrika Korps heirloom. The habit of asking no questions in any case prevailed and so from that moment I acted and dressed – and received my pay -as a Temporary Second Lieutenant, never suspecting that this was just a Missione Nemo disguise to get me into Trieste, where the Allies did not allow Italian military personnel. There is no trace whatever in any of my military papers or records that I ever had such a commission. My orders were to proceed to Monfalcone and join as a Liaison Officer a Battalion of New Zealanders who were about to enter Trieste, that had been occupied by Tito’s Yugoslav partisans before the arrival of the Eighth Army. My acceptance by them must have been the work of Major Page’s who was not above forgetting inconvenient general rules, and who was instead interested in having a pair of eyes he knew to look at that situation. I was to go in with that Battalion. Guido Tassan and Toio Strukel, my two companions of the Vicenza link of Missione Nemo, who after the German surrender had returned home wearing their Italian uniforms, had been arrested by Tito’s police and had disappeared. This was very alarming indeed as then the Yugoslavs had every intention of annexing the Venezia Giulia provinces as far as the Isonzo river and beyond and had begun a campaign of harassment and intimidation of the Italian population in the areas they had occupied at the time of the German collapse, wherever the Eighth Army had not arrived. Nowadays it is called “ethnic cleansing” but then, just as now, it was a dirty and bloody business. Killings and disappearances of the more prominent Italian figures in the area were common and were justified to the Allies as reprisals against fascists or as uncontrollable vengeance for the Italian occupation of Yugoslavia from 1941 to 1943. Obviously no such justification was applicable to Guido and Toio but the very fact that they were the living negation of that official theory made them a target. I was to try and discover in the first place what had happened to our two men but also to monitor the general situation in Trieste and report back, both to De Haag and Page, by regular trips to Milan.
After a few days in Monfalcone the Battalion was at last ordered into Trieste as Tito’s regular forces had accepted to withdraw from the city. I did not want to enter Trieste looking like just any other non-descript Allied, so in Monfalcone I commandeered an Alpino hat, complete with eagle feather, to which I had no right at all, never having served in that Corps a single day, but I felt that I owed it to the Triestini to show them that an Italian was there. It certainly made me very popular.
On my journeys to and from Milan I always tried to stop at the Rois house in Montegalda, where Boso and his sister Mimina were at the centre of that explosion of joie de vivre that marked the end of the war. There seemed to be an endless stream of parties, with the British Ninth Lancers, billeted nearby and a number of Italian Liaison Officers – real ones these – providing a set of dashing young men, whose immaculate NAAFI Stores uniforms made me livid with envy. One of them, Giuseppe Tecchio, a pre-war friend, who had come up the Italian peninsula as Liaison
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Officer with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, was even going around in a jeep driven by an Indian complete with turban. How could I compete in my baggy pants? I took to smoking a pipe: I hoped that all the fiddling that goes with it would help me conceal my embarrassment. The worst part was that I was still busy running around on my errands while everybody else seemed to have all their time available for that brilliant social life. Whenever I arrived in Montegalda all the girls seemed to be already booked.
In the early summer Missione Nemo was also wound up and we had a farewell party in a house on Lake Varese. I wanted to show Miss Whitaker all my admiration but her position in Major Page’s office made her taboo. Offering flowers would have seemed improper, I thought, so I offered her a basket of cherries. I wonder what message it conveyed to her, if any.
Between errands I went one day to Genoa to see Miss Jessie. She was now in her eighties and had become very frail. The family had managed by pulling strings to avoid her internment as enemy citizen and she had spent all the war years as a house-prisoner on parole. A comfortable house with a park around but still a prisoner. The conflict of loyalty between the Country of her birth and the Country of a lifetime had weighed heavily on her. In her eyes I was the one who had put things right again. Of all my reunions upon returning from the war this was by far the most emotional. I was moved by the depth and – what shall I call it – the innocence of her feelings; also by a sudden surge of childhood memories and by the realization that my childhood was now really and irretrievably over. I am not ashamed to admit that, seated on a bench in the park, we both freely cried at length, fundamentally of happiness, in each other’s arms. A few weeks later she passed away.
My tasks in Trieste were frustrating: we found out that Guido and Toio were still alive but had been moved to prison camps deep inside Yugoslavia, where conditions were rivalling those of the worst German camps, that it was impossible to communicate with them, let alone try something for their liberation. The Iron Curtain was beginning to take shape there and then. They were to be set free only two heavy years later. Guido, the strongest of the two could resume a normal life. Toio survived a few years in and out of hospitals. Other than that I was just delivering sealed messages to people I would never see again or arranging meetings in which I would not participate. My life had now certainly become more comfortable and less hazardous than my wartime bicycling and drawing but I came to regret the clarity of purpose, the visible relationship of cause and effect of those earlier days. The war was over, it had become politics. I was out of my depth.
At the end of the summer Major Page was killed in a road accident and Lieutenant Commander Elia was promoted to Captain and left the Questura, More or less at the same time my duties in Trieste, as well as my bogus commission, came to an end and I returned home to debate whether to resume my architectural studies at the Politecnico or invent something else for my life. I was feeling that I was too old to go
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back to school. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and I did go back. From this point it becomes another story.
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Chapter 5. A TIME OF RECKONING
Now, more than half a century later, having dug up all these memories, it is natural to ask myself what was the sense of it all.
I suspect the Allies could have won the war without my help. If we go from the singular to the plural though, taking into account the whole Italian movement of Liberation, the Partisans North of the frontline and the Regular Forces fighting alongside the Allied Armies from the South, the main sentence remains but I am sure we can take pride in having made a sizeable contribution to victory. What is more important is that these fighting forces had won, in a variety of ways and degrees, the support of practically all Italians, they were promoting the rebirth of a national consciousness. I could always move and operate, obtain information and a roof for the night, often a bite of their scarce food, with practically no fear of being reported. It was not, as has been sometimes suggested, “the desire to back the winning horse”. One must set such calculations against the risks involved: many paid with burnt crops and houses, when not with deportation or death, the help given to the Partisans or to escaped Allied prisoners of war. Moreover Germans and fascists could never set up anything similar in the liberated areas or, in fact, anything at all, in spite of the absence of repressive structures comparable to theirs. The song of the fascist troops was: “Le donne non ci vogliono più bene”, “women don’t love us any more because we wear black shirts”. We were at one with our Country.
In military terms throughout 1944 and the beginning of 1945 the forces deployed against our activities were of the order of several German Divisions, plus the four Divisions the fascist government had managed to conscript and to train in Germany, without counting all the various police and militia units. The final German surrender on the Italian Front, prior to Hitler’s death and general capitulation, was undoubtedly caused by the Allied breakthrough on the Gothic Line but was probably accelerated by the uprising of the northern cities, that cut the retreat to the alpine passes of three fascist Divisions: Monterosa, San Marco, Littorio and four German Divisions: 34th, 42nd, 5th Alpenjaeger and the Baltics.
Against this backdrop my personal achievements are certainly modest. The organization of a few aerial drops, the survey of a line of defence that in the end was never even manned, being put out of action by an arrest caused by my own carelessness, serving in the final operations that amounted essentially to accepting the surrender of a dispirited enemy, all this is hardly the stuff to make an Iliad with. To me though it all mattered. Through this I grew from boy to man. Or so I thought at the time. Through this in any case I acquired a degree of self-confidence that neither torture nor baggy pants could dent and that I still find useful. What I also acquired was the sense of unity and comradeship not only with the few original friends I
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already had but also with all those people I met as events rolled on, unknown before, people often with different backgrounds, motives and ideals, with whom however no explanation was required. The patriotism I had learned as a child had become a deep sense of belonging and responsibility.
I also learned that I could fight without hating, without having to see the enemies as demons. I became capable of understanding what moved them and yet remained able to fight against them because what moved them was incompatible with the things that moved me and that I could not renounce. I would never accept that “the only good German is a dead German” or the saying “pietà l’è morta”, pity is dead, that became only too frequently a self-justification of atrocities on both sides.
I would never accept fanaticism or lies. This may have been easier for me not only for the basic values learned from my family but also, perhaps mainly, because our group, where our ideals, feelings and patterns of behaviour were formed, was homogeneous: we had shared school days, school pranks, days of sport and many books. The fear of what Alberto or Guido or Fabio might think and say – their disapproval – was a restraining force far stronger than liberal ideals or Christian charity: we had to remain true to the image we had of ourselves. We knew that some things are just not done: you don’t shoot a surrendering enemy like you don’t shoot a sitting bird. Thinking of ourselves as a monumental cocktail of Spartacus and Garibaldi would have made us roar with sarcastic laughter. Our models may well have been in the books we had read or the films we had seen as children or teenagers but they were no myths. We were just lads like many, perhaps a shade livelier than average. We just knew we had to do what seemed right and do our best, make a good job of it.
Two last questions also seem natural at this point: “Is it still difficult to be Italian?”; “Have we made it less difficult?” Having set out to tell this tale to my grandchildren these questions cannot be escaped: I must attempt a reply. Being Italian now is probably no more difficult than being anything else. So either I was over-touchy when I was young or in some way a balance has been redressed. In spite of the current unsavoury vagaries of Italian politics the scale of our problems is not comparable with what was facing us in the nineteen thirties, in the nineteen-forties. If this is the case the merit must go to all those men and women of the generations that in the second half of the twentieth century have contributed not only to liberate Italy in wartime but also to reconstruct it afterwards, especially those who have, not always successfully, nor ever successfully enough strived to introduce a measure of love for decency and for liberty in our public life.
If ever – and this is specifically a grandfather’s piece of advice – you feel reason to be ashamed of your Country, don’t just expect others to put it right, especially others in authority. Just take it on yourselves, do what you can, do what seems right, make a good job of it.