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SIXTY-FIVE YEARS AGO in Torricella – October 19, 1943
A Horrific Tragedy
October 19, 2008
Antonio Piccoli di maone
The War began in Italy in 1940, on the side of Hitler who wanted to conquer the world. There were battles, few victories, many defeats, thousands of deaths, lack of equipment, far away places, Greece, Albania, Russia. Discontent was at a maximum. On July 25th 1943, in Rome, the Grand Council removed Mussolini from office and had him arrested. “Finally” many shouted, “The war is over!” This news spread all over Italy in a flash and there was much euphoria. In Torricella there were about thirty antifascist internees. Without even asking for permission from the local Carabiniere Station, they all vanished and returned to their own villages.
Unfortunately, however, the war had not ended, only fascism had ended. As a consequence of that decision the Germans occupied Italy in opposition to the Allies who had disembarked in Sicily to commence their “Italy Campaign”: from Sicily to Rome in order to liberate all of Italy.
On the radio we began to hear the news that the war was coming closer to our parts. August 1943 was a month filled with fear and apprehension. Now the war was coming down from the skies with terrible bombings by the Allies who set off from airports in Puglia and raged against the whole of Central Italy, on towns and villages. Their strategy was to make the Germans withdraw and to prepare for the true offensive, the liberation of Rome.
The peninsula by now had become one huge battlefield as far as the world was concerned. On 28th August 1943, an Anglo-American squadron bombed Sulmona, which was held by the Germans; unfortunately, a passenger train that was entering the station received a direct hit. Hundreds of civilians died.
On 3rd September, on a clear, calm day, ever so many Allied bombers, in perfect order, crossed the skies over Torricella. The noise was deafening. Many youths went to the clearing in the Pinewood to see well. There was no end to them. They were directed towards the other side of the Maiella to bomb Sulmona again. There was even a skirmish above Torricella because two German fighters broke into the formation but they hardly caused any disorder, the allies soon reformed and carried on to their objective with their load of bombs.
On 8th September, there was the Armistice. Command of the Italian Army was given to Badoglio and Italy became an Anglo-American ally. The way in which it was broadcast over the radio, it really seemed that this time the war had ended. In Torricella the bells rang out for a holiday. Once again it was an illusion. Moreover, the war in Abruzzo and Central Italy was yet to begin.
On that day, some English prisoners, who had escaped from the German prisons in Chieti and Sulmona, passed through Torricella. They were tired and scared and trusted nobody. They were in a hurry to reach their army in the south. Torricella took them in without hostility. Without stopping, they carried on with their journey to reach behind the allied lines.
The war advanced rapidly during the months of September and October. The Allied Army wanted to reach Rome as quickly as possible. They occupied Naples, Avellino and Foggia after indiscriminate bombings. There were thousands of dead and entire cities were destroyed. No-one was spared in their efforts to make the Germans retreat. The English, disposed along the Eastern side of Italy, were trying to reach Pescara as quickly as possible, in order to cut back to Rome. The Americans meanwhile were on the west side, on the road to Casilina. The Germans needed to play for time whilst awaiting re-enforcements from the other fronts. They needed to oppose the advance by all possible means. They needed to reorganise and arm themselves well. They even enlisted the very old and the very young. Four years of war on the various fronts had decimated their men. In order to defend themselves and to block the Allied Army, they built several lines of defence. The most famous of which was the Gustav Line, which Hitler had expressly desired. It divided Italy at the narrowest point of the peninsula, in an inaccessible, mountainous region of the Apennines; it went from the mouth of the River Sangro to the mouth of the Garigliano. Our zone, therefore, our villages, were in the middle of the most important war front of Italy. It was the front where the Germans drew up all their forces with military intelligence and logistics. To create this defence line, they carried out a “burnt earth” policy over a strip measuring 5–10 kilometres, stretching from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Sea, garrisoning the highest points, destroying the bridges and mining all the points where the Allied army would pass.
Then came 19th of October 1943.
It was a Tuesday, at ten o’clock in the morning on a hot, sunny day.
As Nicola Troilo says, (who at that time was not quite twenty years old and who wrote the memoirs of the Brigata Maiella – the Maiella Brigade), a small detachment of Germans had already been stationed in the village since the end of September; they immediately made themselves hated because of the way they stole goods from the shops and animals from the stables. On that fateful day, the SS arrived to comb the area to get as many men as possible for trench work.
Peppinuccio Cionna di bindet (Joseph Cionni) was a witness that day and here is how he tells of it:
Before that day, a few Germans came into the village on motorbikes to observe. Probably their tactics were to evaluate the composition of the populace and to decide how they could be moved.
That morning the sun was shining brightly and it was hot.
I was at the corner of Corso Umberto and Via Bellini, where today the bar is, and with me were Nicola D’Orazio and Antonio Fedele (Antonio was called “the blond” because he had red-gold hair; Nicola was simply called “D’Orazio”).
As usual, conversation was casual: women, food, weather, etc. Looking towards the Pinewood, we saw a German lorry, followed immediately by another, a third, a fourth and still more and they went downhill towards the Corso. When the first lorry passed near to us, going towards San Rocco, we saw that armed German soldiers were sitting in the back (wearing helmets, hands on their rifles or sub-machine guns).
When the first lorry stopped, the others stopped too, a good distance from each other. It seemed as if they were waiting for an order. The “the blond” said, “I don’t like this, let’s get out of here at once” and so we began to run along Via Bellini; D’Orazio and I went towards my home and “the blond” went to the right towards the fields. Then we began to hear rifle shots and women shouting. We reached our house, where my mother and my grandmother told us to hide behind the large vats that were on the ground floor. The news was that the Germans were taking men prisoner, to take them to dig in the trenches; anyone who did not co-operate would be killed. In fact, Donato Porreca was killed on the playing field, whilst trying to escape. My uncle, Nicola Palizzi and D’Orazio’s father were taken prisoner, together with other men who at that moment were in my uncle’s shoemaker’s shop. They completed the entire sweep in about one hour. From that moment on, the Germans established their headquarters in Torricella.
Then many more soldiers arrived, their vehicles full of provisions, armoured cars, mobile cannons and tanks; I counted at least six “Tiger” tanks, positioned in the narrow streets so as not to be visible from the air. The soldiers occupied the public buildings first and then began to make the people evacuate their homes. The occupation was complete.
The Germans stayed in Torricella until May 1944; the village was their fortress for the winter.
Don Attilio Calabrese tells what happened as follows:
Up until that time, Torricella had stayed out of the war; no soldiers of the Werhmacht had been seen there.
The Odyssey began on 19th October 1943. At ten o’clock in the morning, three SS lorries arrived, shouting and shooting madly in order to spread terror and prevent the young men from running away. They were like wild beasts. When they reached the Corso, they parked one lorry near the old Town Hall, the second in front of the old Post Office and the third at the foot of the hill where the Pinewood is. Shouting and shooting all the time, the SS jumped out of the vehicles and set about rounding up the young men, amidst the desperate cries of the women and children. The young men, terrorised, ran here and there, followed by the mob of soldiers. Some miraculously saved themselves; others, about a hundred, were seized and herded together near the Town Hall. Others, such as Verna, the Podestà, Testa, the Council Secretary, and Dr. Porreca, the health officer, were released.
The lawyer, Ettore Troilo, was almost captured. He had been hiding in Torricella for a while, because he was wanted for being a “dangerous” antifascist. Realising that the SS had overlooked him, he turned towards the road where his house was and walking slowly to disguise his escape, he slipped away.
If they had captured him, maybe the Brigata Maiella would never have been conceived… and the history of our people would certainly have been more difficult.
Don Attilio also says:
The prisoners were loaded onto the three lorries and were taken to very cold locations, Piano delle Cinquemiglia (Five Mile Plain), Roccaraso and Pescocostanzo, where they were destined to do general hard labour. These unfortunate victims, including the pilot Commander Mancini, were not even allowed to change their clothes or grab some food.
On that sad day, Torricella had its first civilian death, Donato Porreca, son of the late Giuseppe. The Germans shot him whilst he tried to escape. He was a shopkeeper, had two young sons and was the first to die in a very long series of deaths”.
The village was overwhelmed by deep distress.
“Should we leave our homes, abandon our village or stay?”
From that day onwards, other groups of German soldiers began to arrive. The Occupation had begun with that terrible language of theirs, which already on its own struck one with terror. With shouts and rifles at the ready, they shot, occupied and plundered everything that was there. From one day to the next, everything had changed. It would not be long before the same things as were happening in the surrounding areas would take place here too: the proclamation of General Field Marshal Kesserling, Commander of the 65th division of the German Army, obligatorily exiled the inhabitants – “EVACUATION”.
Inexorably, it happened soon afterwards.
On 4th and 5th December, all Torricellans had to leave, or be shot in the fields. That was the beginning of a very hard winter. People took refuge in country cottages, in stables and in farmhouses at Santa Giusta, San Venanzio, Sant’Agata, Coste Mulino, Colle Zingaro and at Madonna delle Rose. They were made welcome, but space was very limited. There were so many people, a hotchpotch, sleeping on straw mattresses or on the ground.
The hope was that it would soon be over, that in a few days the Allies would come to liberate everyone. After all, they were very close by, on the right bank of the Sangro. But that was another illusion. Resistance by the Germans, who had lavished all their best troops on the Gustav Line, and the extremely bitter winter of 1943-1944, meant that the Allied Commander did not launch the decisive attack, preferring to wait until the spring. All the villages that were on the Line, apart from being evacuated, underwent numerous outrages, oppression and massacres by the occupying army, with a ferocity that had never been seen before. Those were extremely long months, the longest in our history.
There was no hope, time passed and there was a long trail of blood and fear fell on Torricella and on the Torricellans. From November until the end of January was an incredible time, with deaths, carnage, theft and vexations. The Germans lay in ambush in the village, where they committed violent and roguish retaliations and set mines to “burn the earth” whilst awaiting the Allies. The German ambush also caused Torricella to be the target of Allied cannon fire. The Allies were stationed in Casoli, and they hit the bell-tower of San Giacomo Church several times.
On the one side were the Germans, who hated and despised us as Italians “because we had betrayed them”, on the other side was the multiethnic Allied Army, composed of English, Canadians, New Zealanders, Nepalese, Poles and Indians, who did not trust us Italians because they also thought “we had betrayed them” and that we might even be informers or collaborators. For them Italy was still fascist.
We were in the middle, our fathers and our mothers; we knew little or nothing of the great strategies of Hitler, of Churchill, or of Eisenhower, of their language and of the reasons why we were forced to suffer so many outrages.
There is one aspect that I believe should be stressed: never before had so much wickedness been so heatedly displayed by soldiers against defenceless civilians. In spite of all the international agreements on behaviour to be carried out towards occupied peoples in case of war, which the Germans too had signed, these dreadful and incredible outrages were committed.
Such wickedness, however, sparked off a strong sense of reaction. People could not hold back when, as well as stealing what little there was to eat, they molested the women and tortured the elderly and they did not hesitate to kill anyone who showed minimal resistance.
Thus the few men who were still left, joined the resistance movement, armed with hunting guns or machine guns stolen from the Germans. They set about fighting, alone or together in groups. Thus “the resistance” was formed in Abruzzo too, a resistance for survival, a war not ideologically drawn up, different from the Partisan War in the North.
January 1944 was the most tragic month in the history of Torricella. There were so many deaths. On 22nd January it reached its height with the most terrible slaughter in all the Province of Chieti: the massacre of Sant’Agata where 43 people died of whom 39 were Torricellans. Old people, women and children, who to escape reprisals had hidden in an old farmhouse in a small hamlet of Gessopalena, very close to Torricella.
Finally on 1st February 1944, the Allied Commander, stationed at Casoli, gave the go-ahead to the leader, the lawyer, Ettore Troilo, to try to liberate our village. Thus at ten o’clock in the morning, in a pre-arranged action, Torricella was freed by the VIIth platoon of the Brigata Maiella.
Lieutenant Luigi Salvati of Colledimacine led the platoon. The first to enter the village were Mario Di Fabrizio, Antonio Coladonato, Marziale Di Cino, Rocco Piccoli, Nicola Di Luzio, Antonio Manzi, the Argentieri brothers, Domenico Piccone and several others.
Mario Di Fabrizio di trummincielle climbed up the bell-tower and hung up a white sheet to inform the English, who had remained behind, that Torricella was free and so they could advance with their tanks.
The autonomous partisan group from Gessopalena, led by Domenico Troilo, took part in the liberation; at the end of February this group merged with the Brigata Maiella.
By late evening Fallascoso was liberated too.
The village was in disastrous conditions, all the roads were in ruins and were full of rubble; the houses did not exist any more; there were putrefying bodies everywhere. After a few days some people tried to re-enter but to avoid a dreadful epidemic they had to leave.
The Germans still had garrisons in many important places in the vicinity. They had left Torricella but not the zone. The danger of bursts of machine gun fire or blasts from mines continued throughout February and there were further deaths. Finally, from March onwards there were no more killings.
April and May passed by, however, before we could return to the village.
On 18th May the Allies succeeded in breaking the Gustav Line. After disembarking at Anzio in January, they took Montecassino.
The Germans, by now defeated, began their retreat, still fighting and destroying wherever they went.
On June 4th the Allies entered Rome. On 10th June Torricella was freed definitively, and the bells were run continuously to announce the liberation.
The weather was gorgeous, filled with spring sunshine. Only groups of Indian soldiers could be seen, and they would soon be leaving. So everyone abandoned the countryside and took the road home. Many people did not find their homes, however, only ruins and destruction.
They began to count the dead, 103 civilians, 58 males and 45 females. There were many elderly and children amongst them.
Then there were all the soldiers who fell in the battlefields far from Torricella, Partisans who were prisoners in Germany, and 12 Alpinists who were lost in Russia and never returned.
There were so very many who did not come back.
It was a dreadful tragedy for a small village of 3,300 inhabitants.
I gathered this information from the following:
· Torricella Peligna 1943-1944, Ricordi di guerra (Torricella Peligna 1943-1944, Memories of War) written by Don Attilio Calabrese;
· from the book I Banditi della libertà (The Bandits of Freedom) by Marco Patricelli, dedicated to the Brigata Maiella;
· from research on the Internet;
· from Nicola Troilo’s notes.
Translation courtesy of Dr. Marion Apley Porreca
The Gustav Line