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The War Ends in Italy, 2nd May 1945

by Ron Goldstein

Contributed by 
Ron Goldstein
People in story: 
Ron Goldstein
Location of story: 
Italy and Austria
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A2039113
Contributed on: 
14 November 2003

The Guardhouse at our POW camp at Ferndorf

Notes from my Diaries

Wednesday 2nd. May 1945
Jerry threw his hand in Italy and Austria. Fired all our 2" mortars, phosphorous bombs and verey lights and had bonfires all over the shop.
Cease fire about 11 pm.
( At noon today the Germans signed an unconditional surrender at Caserta)

Within days the whole regiment was summoned on parade by the CO who addressed us as follows:
"As you know the war in Europe is now over, and I suppose most of you are looking forward to seeing your loved ones again after years spent overseas. I must tell you, however, that there is an SS Cavalry Division in Austria at the moment who refuse to cease fighting and our regiment has been given the honour of going up there and persuading them that it would be a good idea on their part to surrender to us."

Wednesday 9th. May 1945
All packed ready for move to Austria of all places but cancelled when S.S. Division packed in. Parcel from home with Kummel.
Thursday 10th. May 1945
Playing cards all day. Latest griff is we are getting armoured cars and then going to Austria as occupational troops. Still no mail.
Friday 11th. May 1945
Spent all afternoon in Padua, iced drinks, ices and ENSA show.
Met lads of brother Mick's Brigade.
Hear that Jack has been shot down over Nuremberg.
This was the terrible day when I received a letter from home to say that my brother Jack had been shot down over Germany and had been posted as missing. It reached me within a week of the war ending in Europe and at a time when we were all congratulating ourselves on having survived the war.
Saturday 12th. May 1945
Afternoon in Venice. Took lift to the top of the Campanile in Piazza San Marco. Had picture taken with the clock in the background.
Sunday 13th. May 1945
Had a day in, fortunately, as orders came in that we are on 12 hours notice to move into Austria
Monday 14th. May 1945
Moved off at 8 am. Stopped for night just North of Udine at small village that had been bombed by us. Partisans swarmed all over the place, one with Robin Hood beard.

The Partisans were something new in my experience. In my estimation these were genuine heroes, to have been captured by the Germans would have meant certain death for themselves and probably their families. Without exception they were all bearded and dressed in the most motley of clothing. They were armed with mainly captured German weapons and at this point in their lives they were living a dream come true. We saw one small group who had recently captured a German soldier. They were pushing him along in front of them to lord knows where. The soldier was grey in face as if he knew what fate awaited him and no one in our party made the slightest move to ask them what was going on.

Regimental Diaries:
15th May Verbal orders received from 78 Div to establish POW camp at FERNDORF for 500 POW.

Wednesday 16th. May 1945
At Ferndorf. Nothing to do but wait arrival of (German) prisoners. Griff is very confused. Am not on guard list. Billets crowded but quite O.K.

Ferndorf
The site for the camp was almost ideal. Situated in a valley it must originally have been a field for grazing and had the river on one side and railway embankment on the other. We quickly put up some barbed wire around the perimeter and bingo, we had a cage. Within a few days the first 2OOO prisoners arrived by train and eventually this number was to swell to 4OOO.
Timber was requisitioned from far and wide, and after it was dumped in the cage, the Germans were told to get on with it and build their own accommodation, which they soon did in a most professional manner. One of the first buildings put up was a guard room for our own benefit and I, in company with the rest of "A" squadron, was to spend the next month doing 24 hours on, and 24 hours off guard without a break.

At any one time there were only four men on actual guard around the perimeter, one patrolling the railway embankment, one the river bank, and the other two each other side of the cage. The Germans had their own internal guard to keep things in order within the cage itself and it was quite common for the British and German guards to patrol together, each on his own side of the wire.

On one occasion, in the early hours of the morning, I was chatting in German to my counterpart on the other side. I told him I was Jewish, to which I got the almost automatic response: "Ich habe so viel Freunden Juden!", ( I have so many Jewish friends!) and I asked him as a matter of academic interest what would have happened if some weeks earlier I had the misfortune to be captured by his own unit and they discovered I was Jewish.
He considered the matter for a moment and then told me that if I had been one of a large group of prisoners, then no attempt would have been made to segregate me, and I would have just been sent to the rear with the others. If, however, I had been captured separately and if his own officer said to him "shoot him" then he would simply have shot me, for as he quite cheerfully pointed out to me: "If I don't shoot you, then he shoots me!"

At the time, it all seemed perfectly logical to both of us and I have often been glad that events had never put the matter to the test.

On another occasion I was on the river bank duty and was being observed by a bunch of young Jerries. It was fairly obvious that they were amused by something and I asked them what they were laughing at. The ringleader said: "It's because you are only armed with a pistol!" (as tank crew this was standard issue and worn in a belt holster). I pointed out to him that if he personally attempted to slip through the wire and swim the river, the pistol was more than sufficient to stop him, if on the other hand the whole 4OOO of them were to decide to make a run for it, then all the armoured cars in the village would probably have difficulty in stopping them. He saw the logic of it and shared it with his friends.

Occasionally we would lose some prisoners who would scoot up the railway embankment and make for the hills, and we used to send out patrols in the early hours to see if they were hiding in the local farms. To everyone's embarrassment we sometimes found our own troops having a liaison with the local "talent."

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Italy 1945

Posted on: 14 December 2003 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Ron, thanks for the story ..which I had previously read, though late at night. My father, a radiographer in the RAMC in Malta and Italy saw the Italian Fleet surrender. He treated a lot of Yugoslav partisans, many of them women with a belt full of hand grenades. A suggestion of organising a dance with these young ladies wasn't well received! Their courage however was beyond question.
A1310536

You raised the question of being Jewish. I've often wondered how British children would have behaved brought up on brilliantly manipulative propaganda. Your German group seem to have been extremely compliant and willing to do whatever was needed to please those in command. Perhaps that was a culture difference.

paul

 

Message 2 - Italy 1945

Posted on: 08 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Ron has mentioned Italian partisans, but so little is known of them in the UK. Unfortunately nearly all studies and websites are in Italian. Of the many I have selected two:

Here http://www.resistenzaitaliana.it/About links you can hear the most popular song of the resistance "Bella ciao", it spread like wildfire from September 1943 and was very easy for boys to whistle as Germans marched by.

Some photographs of the leaders of the partisan movement may be seen here members.xoom.virgilio.it/larchivio/foto-partigiani.htmAbout links . The last three are of 'Guido', the nomme de guerre of the Aldo Lampredi, a powerful figure in the resistence. Born in Florence in 1899, he joined the Communist party in 1921 and was condemned to 10 years imprisonment in 1926, but amnestied after six. Exiled in France in 1932 he immediately undertook anti-fascist activities. He fought throughout the Spanish civil war as a member of the International Brigade. He then lived on the run in France from 1940 to 1943, when he returned to Italy, where in September he organised the Friuli partisan groups. There are few photographs of him and the point of the last two photos is that he is identified by his white raincoat, the only mark of distinction he ever wore.

The final photo is of another prominent member of the resistence, Emilio Sereni. Sereni, unlike Lampredi, was not a lifelong military man, but rather a Jewish Italian academic born in 1907 into a distinguished Roman family (his father, Samuel, was a doctor for the Italian Royal Family and later for wounded partisans). Arrested in June 1943, a month before the fall of Mussolini, he was sentenced to 18 years for sabotage, subversion, and illegal emigration. Moved from prison to prison for a number of attempted escapes and on the point of being executed he was set free in August 1944 in a daring partisan rescue. He established himself right under the Fascists' noses in Milan, where the Communist party made him head of propaganda and agitation. He was later elected a member of the partisan executive council.

Peter

 

Message 3 - Italy 1945

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Ron Goldstein

Peter
Thanks for pointing me to the Partisan site. Pity it's not in English!
Looking at my diary notes again I can still remember the impact these men made on me. It took a special kind of courage to belong to units such as these when they knew, without a shadow of doubt, that capture by the Germans meant certain death.
Ciaou
Ron

 

Message 4 - Italy 1945

Posted on: 23 June 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Ron

There is a good website on Italian Partisans here www.answers.comAbout links

From that site you can also access shocking details of the Marzabotto massacre (or direct here www.answers.comAbout links and the Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre (or direct from here www.answers.comAbout links )

Both these massacres are relevant to your story because they were carried out by the 16. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Reichsführer-SS and there is a very high probability that it was remnants of this SS division that you were guarding.

The 16. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Reichsführer-SS, Himler's personal division, had a long history of war crimes beginning in Poland in 1939. The unit started as Himmler's Kommandostab RF-SS but in May 1941 it was formed into a battalion, the Begleit Battailon RF-SS, to fight Russian partisans. In February 1943 it was upgraded to brigade status, it was renamed 'Assault Brigade -SS', and is believed to have operated alongside troops commanded by the notorious Dirlanger during anti-partisan operations near Minsk in March 1943.

The brigade was moved to Corsica, about that time, and during the summer Himmler enlarged it to a division which Hitler personally approved on 3 October 1943. Parts of this new division opposed the Anzio landings in January 1944. It then went to Hungary but was reported back in Italy in May.

Gordon Williamson, an historian of the Waffen-SS, says of this division "Under attacks by Italian partisans the division also reverted to its former standards of behaviour" That behaviour was appalling. Aside from the two massacres mentioned above, they killed a further 370 civilians around Bardene San Terrenzo and about 1,670 around Marzabotto.

In January 1945 they were rushed to Hungary where they received a severe mauling from the Red Army and were pushed back into southern Austria. There, at the end of hostilities they refused to surrender until some days after VE day when their commander, SS-Gruppenführer Max Simon, wearing a white armband presented himself to the Allies and successfully negotiated surrender terms for his men. It was agreed that a part would surrender to the Americans around Klagenfurt and Radstadt, and the remainder to the British at Graz; none to Italian partisans. It is this group which I now think your unit was unwittingly guarding. Returned to Germany, they simply melted away.

Peter

 

Message 5 - Italy 1945

Posted on: 23 June 2005 by Ron Goldstein

Peter
Mant thanks for, as always, going the extra mile to obtain the truth.
It is difficult, some sixty odd years later to read and learn the true facts concerning the men who we had in our cage at Ferndorf but I will now go back to the Regimental records to see if some of the data contained in that document now makes more sense.
Once more in your debt.
Best wishes
Ron

 

Message 6 - Italy 1945

Posted on: 23 June 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Ron

I can quite understand the dilemma faced by the Allies in May 1945, 'summary justice' (a euphemism used extensively by the SS) being totally unacceptable.

The fate of the 29.Waffen Grenadier Division Der SS(italienischer Nr.1) is a good example of differing attitudes. This SS division, known also as the 'Legione SS italiana', was formed of ultra-fascist Italians.

Despite being designated a division, it consisted of just two battalions: the 'Debica' and the 'Vendetta'. In 1945 the Debica battalion surrendered to the Americans at Gorgonzola and were naturally treated as PoWs, and ultimately released. The other battalion, the Vendetta, had to surrender to the partisans in early May and almost all were executed out of hand.

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