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15 October 2014
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Wartime in Italy Stories - Occupation

by London Borough of Newham Public

Contributed by 
London Borough of Newham Public
People in story: 
Isola Comparini
Location of story: 
Roggio, Tuscany, Italy
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 November 2005

I was born in London to Italian parents but went back to Italy when I was a baby. When I was 16 I returned to England to work and at the outbreak of war, I was living and working as a home help in Harlsden.
My mother sent a telegram and asked my brother and I to return to Italy as she was afraid for our safety in London. As a UK citizen my brother was conscripted and had to go into the British army so I went back to Italy.
Within a short space of time, the Italian fascists under Mussolini had joined forces with the Germans and incorporated the Italian army (known as the “King’s Army”).
As a result, for Italian civilians like our family; there was little food available in the village and we had to live on what we could forage from the nearby fields and woods. One of our mainstays were chestnuts, some of which we made into flour for bread and cakes. We also made vegetable minestrone and yellow polenta from the sweetcorn grains.
We had a few chickens in the village but they were more value to us alive providing us with eggs. There were also some rabbits but these were often sold to get shoes.
Many German soldiers came to the village and searched and looted tour homes for jewellery, clothes and radios. This was very frightening for us and we also had to be careful that we did not appear to be collaborating with the enemy as the partisans (resistance) would punish us.
On one occasion German soldiers broke into the local school searching for valuables and took the radio that the children listened to. A girl tackled them about it and they grabbed hold of her and led her away. At around the same time some other soldiers stopped two boys who had been looking for wood and took them to their headquarters. They then took all three of them out and shot them. This was in reprisal for the killing of a soldier by partisans. For every German that died three Italians were killed.
Another time the Germans came to our house and we had an old jacket hanging on a hook and they assumed we were hiding someone and went all over the house searching.
After about two years, we were liberated by the American troops.

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Message 1 - Wartime in Italy Stories

Posted on: 28 November 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Isola

I read your story with great interest, in many ways it is similar to my own and that of my sister Gloria's - it brought back many painful memories, not least the hunger and the constant foraging for food. I had quite forgotten about chestnuts. How I looked forward to them ripening! Then the great pans of boiled chestnuts, food at last! Or roasted in the fire, or ground for flour. As for polenta, we ate it hot, cold, warmed up, fried - it was our main-stay for the last two years of the war. Then the constant collecting of wood to cook and to keep warm, freezing from November to March. I do know how you and your family suffered in that seemingly never-ending nightmare.

You say that "For every German that died three Italians were killed", but that wasn't so. The case you mention must have been one of unprecedented leniency. General Kesserling's order was that for every German soldier killed ten Italians, between the ages of 16 and 65, were to be either shot or hanged. This was a minimum, and they weren't very strict about the age limits either. For the Fosse Ardentine massacre Hitler had initially ordered that fifty should be executed for each of the 32 German SS killed by the partisans on 23 March 1944 in Rome, and it was only with difficulty that Kesserling got him to agree to the usual ten. So 320 should have sufficed, but with their enthusiasm in these matters they shot 335 with the last batches having to kneel on the bodies of others in the restricted space of the cave. They were all shot with a single bullet at the back of the head so the massacre took from early afternoon to late evening. Himmler was incensed when he heard about the number killed in the Ardentine Cave on Kesserling's orders and tried his very best to have the original 50:1 ratio restored, even sending General Wolff to reason with him. Kesserling, however, stuck to his guns and after the massacre had this order issued to all German troops under his command [Para. 1 to 3 (i) and 4, 5 omitted]:

"3 (ii) If soldiers and others are shot from any locality, the village will be burnt to the ground. Culprits or leaders will be hanged in public. Orders for the burning of villages and buildings can be given only by officers down to and including battalion commanders. If German soldiers fall victims to attacks by civilians, up to 10 able-bodied Italians will be shot for each German killed."

Regarding public hangings, a subsequent order stipulated that "After the bodies have been left hanging for twelve hours the public will be ordered to bury them without ceremony and without the assistance of any priest."

These orders, of course, applied to the Wehrmacht; the SS were not so restrained. The Ardentine Cave massacre is the most well known, but there were several hundred of such 'reprisals'.

On a very minor point and a more pleasant subject, 'Regio Esercito' translates as 'Royal Army', rather than 'King's Army'. Oddly, Britain is a Kingdom without a Royal Army (although it has a Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force); maintaining the pretence that the Royal regiments that form it are independent entities.

Con auguri,
Peter Ghiringhelli

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