Those ancient walls of which Shakespeare spoke still guard some of Verona’s best-kept treasures. Amongst the gems it conceals, the Raggio di Sole, a green oasis of trees, discreetly located high on the wall's ramparts. So discreet, in fact, that it has taken me nearly 4 years to discover, and then only quite by chance.
While the city’s suburban parks are often mysteriously devoid of children, at the Raggio di Sole there is no shortage of keen youngster, eager to join in an impromptu game of football. With a bar, pizzeria, animal enclosure and roller-skating rink, it’s the perfect place to come on a bright sunny spring morning. The steady rumble of traffic from the nearby ring-road, the only reminder that you are still in the heart of the city.
Not far from the park, another of the wall’s hidden treasures lies waiting to be discovered.
The Parco Divisione Acqui, which commemorates the terrible events that took place in Cephalonia in September 1943.
Those who have read Captain Correlli’s Mandolin (a literary masterpiece) or seen the film (a Hollywood travesty) will have some understanding of the tragic events that this magnificent monument commemorates. It is one of Verona’s most striking public works of art, a masterpiece of modern sculpture, let down only by the rather ugly concrete plinth upon which it stands and the badly translated information plaque nearby.
The sculpture was created by the renowned artist, poet and partisan Mario Salazzari. He was tortured and imprisoned by the Nazis, but esacaped a few days before the arrival of the Allied army. Visitors to Verona will be more familiar with Salazzari’s other great work, the Monumento al Partigiano, which gazes heroically over Piazza Bra.
The invasion of Greece
On 28 October 1940 the Italian dictator, “in his customary cold blooded way” and “without the slightest provocation”, launched an attack on the “small but famous and immortal Greek nation” [Churchill's words]. The Greeks repelled the initial attack and the counter-attack that followed in March 1941. But in April, the faltering Italian invasion was bolstered by arrival of the Germans. The Greek army was unable to defend itself against this combined Italian and German onslaught and on 27 April 1940 Athens fell.
The fascist occupation
Military forces from Germany, Italy and Bulgaria divide and occupy Greece.
The Italian Acqui Division (11,500 soldiers and 525 officers commanded by 52-year-old General Antonio Gandin, an Iron Cross clad veteran of the Russian Front) is given the task of occupying the island of Cephalonia. There follows a period of fascist occupation during which the civilian population suffers terrible hardship, with many dyeing from privation and hunger. It is this occupation which provides the historical backdrop to the story of Captain Correlli's Mandolin.
In September 1943, when Italy surrenders to the Allies, General Gandin faces a serious dilemma: whether surrender to the Germans or resist. In the absence of specific orders from his superiors, he begins negotiations with his German counterpart, Colonel Johannes Barge. The two men respect each other and conclude their discussions, hopeful that the desperate situation can be resolved peacefully.
However, things soon deteriorate and, on 11 September, Barge gives Gandin three choices: (a) continue fighting on the German side; (b) fight against the Germans; or (c) surrender their arms peacefully. On 13 September, in an unlikely display of democratic decision-making, Gandin presents his troops with a poll: (i) Join the Germans; (ii) surrender and be repatriated; (3) resist the Germans
The Italian troops favour the third option and Gandin subsequently demands that the Germans leave the island.
The massacre of Cefalonia
As the negotiations stall, the Germans prepare to resolve the issue by force. Wehrmacht General Hubert Lanz is responsible for removing the Italian forces from the Greek islands. On the morning of 15 September, the Luftwaffe begins bombarding the Italian positions.
Despite some help from the local population, the conscripts of the Acqui Division are no match for the battle-hardened German military machine. After several days of combat, out of ammunition and with mounting casualties, the last Italians surrender. German orders are to take no prisoners. The Italians are machine gunned where they stand. The massacre continues for a week.
In Corfu, resistance lasts only for a day, but all 280 Italian officers on the island are shot, their bodies, on Lanz's orders, disposed of in the sea.
Padre Romualdo Formato, one of Acqui's seven chaplains and one of the few survivors of the massacre, can only watch as captured Italian officers cry, pray and sing. At the moment of execution, many shout out for their mothers, wives and children. Alfred Richter, an Austrian, and one of the participants in the massacre, later remembers how an Italian soldier who sang arias for the Germans in the local taverns was forced to sing while his comrades were being executed.
In all, 5,000 Italian soldiers were massacred. Three thousand survivors subsequently perished at sea as they were being shipped to German concentration camps. The Acqui Division was wiped out.
Padre Formato survived the massacre and died in 1961. According to his nephew, he never recovered from the events he witnessed on Cefalonia.
General Lanz, commander of the XXII Mountain Corps, is the only person to have been punished for the massacre of Cefalonia. At the Nuremberg Trials he was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. He was released in 1951 and died in 1982. Lt. Colonel Barge was not on the island when the massacre took place. He was subsequently decorated with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for his service in Crete. He died in 2000.
Today, Verona is the seat of the national headquarters of the Acqui Division, which represents the survivors of the massacre of Cephalonia and Corfu. In a solemn ceremony held every year on the anniversary of the massacre, veterans gather around the monument on Verona's famous walls and remember their fallen comrades.
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Exploring Fontanellato, its notorious POW camp and a remarkable escape
Deciding to escape from Verona for the day, our objective is Fontanellato, a small town in north western Italy, an ambitious (with two restless children) two hour drive from Verona, approximately 20 kilometres west of Parma.
Fontanellato is home to the Santuario Basilica della Beata Vergine del Santo Rosario (above), a striking dominican sanctuary that commemorates a succession of miracles dating back to 1628. The monastery is still active and monastic chanting provides an haunting backdrop to our whistle stop tour of the convent.
The Rocca Sanvitale (below) is a fortress-residence located in the centre of Fontanellato. Its origins can be traced back to the 13th century. Until as recently as the 1930s it was home to the descendants of the first Count of Sanvitale.
The fortress is beautifully maintained, as are the surrounding bars and shops, which have a uniform typescript and coordinated pastel shades, creating an atmosphere that is both clean and modern and respectful of the past.
But it wasn't for the monastery or even the medieval fortress that we had made the journey to Fontanellato.
In 1943, Fontanellato was a prison town, home to 600 allied prisoners of war (POWs).
The POWs occupied a four storey building next to the monastery - PG49 (see above). The prison, which was originally designed to be an orphanage, is now a hospital. A plaque on the perimeter fence (see below) commemorates its wartime inhabitants and the local people who, despite the grave risk of reprisals helped them escape.
PG49 was a relatively tranquil place to see out the war. Compared to the conditions endured by POWs in Japan and Germany, the regime at PG49 was relatively safe and secure. Wine was served with lunch and POWs were issued with a daily ration of Vermouth! According to some accounts, it was more like an Oxbridge common room than a wartime detention centre for enemy combatants. The peace and tranquility of the prison, though, couldn't last forever.
In the summer of 1943, there were approximately 80,000 British POWs in Italian prison camps. On 7 June 1943, the British intelligence agency responsible for helping captured allied personnel (MI9) issued Order P/W 87190. In the event of an allied invasion of Italy, this order required all allied prisoners in Italy to "stay put" (rather than attempt to escape). As a consequence, when the armistice was subsequently signed, 50,000 allied prisoners were immediately recaptured by the Germans and shipped north to Germany and Poland, where many are thought to have perished. Some of those who disobeyed the order managed to escape - 5000 north through the Alps to neutral Switzerland and 6,500 south, to the slowly advancing Allied line. Many prisoners, however, remain unaccounted for.
At about 7.30pm on 8 September 1943, news of the armistice between Britain and Italy began to spread through camp PG49. By midday the following morning the detainees had filed past an impromptu Italian guard of honour and through a hole in the wire that the Italian camp commandant had ordered be cut (an act of defiance that would see him spend the rest of the war doing hard labour in a German concentration camp).
But, the escapees had grown used to the routine and relative safety of prison life. Unarmed and out of condition, they stepped out of prison and into the eye of the storm that was now engulfing northern Italy.
A number of detainees of PG49 have written about their experiences. These include the famous travel writer Eric Newby. He escaped from PG49 with the help of a local girl called Wanda. After he fled the prison, Wanda and her father hid Newby from the Germans and then helped him to reach the mountains. Despite their brave efforts, Newby was recaptured in January 1944 and sent to a prison camp in Germany where he spent the rest of the war.
After the war he returned to Italy to find and reward Italian partisans who had helped British soldiers escape. He found Wanda. They were married in Florence in 1946. Newby wrote about his wartime experiences in the book Love and War in the Apennines. He died on 20 October 2006.
Another detainee was Major Richard Carver, who had been captured in the Western Desert on 7 November 1942. Amongst the last to leave PG49, he made his way south with a pipe smoking colonel known as The Gloomy Dean. Ill-equipped for their journey through the mountains in the brutal Italian winter, with the help of many local contadini, Carver somehow made it through German occupied northern Italy and finally walked into American headquarters on the outskirts of Atessa, where he asked to see his stepfather.
Carver's stepfather was Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, hero of El Alamein and commander of the Allied campaign in Italy. Carver flew back to Prestick Airport on 12 December 1943. His diary entry for that day reads: "Home again after 6 years!".
Richard Carver died on 24 July 2007 aged 93. His incredible story is told by his son Tom Carver, the former BBC foreign correspondent, in the wonderfully written "Where the hell have you been? Monty, Italy and one man's incredible escape", published in 2009.
Dan Billany was a teacher and author. He joined the army in October 1940 and by July the next year was Second Lieutenant in the East Yorkshire Regiment. In February 1942 he was posted to North Africa, where his platoon was over-run by Rommel's tanks. He was captured and handed over to the Italians. He was initially held at Camp 66, north of Naples, where he met David Dowie, another English POW.
Dowie and Billany were then transferred to Camp 17 at Rezzanello, where Billany completed The Trap, a fictionalised account of his life. During this time Dan's friendship with David intensified but, after expressing his true feelings for him, he was shunned by Dan. However, their friendship resumed after Dan wrote David a poem to explain his feelings. At the beginning of April 1943 they were moved to Fontanellato, where they began to collaborate on a novel based on their prison life, The Cage.
After escaping from PG49, the two friends stayed together. As with other escapees, they were helped by the local population. They stayed with the Meletti family on a farm on the outskirts of Soragna, five miles north of Fontanellato for a few weeks during which time they finished The Cage. They then began to make their way over the Apennines towards the Allied forces, leaving the exercise books containing the manuscripts with Dino Meletti, who promised to post them to Britain after the war. By November Dowie and Billany had made it as far as Capistrello, 70 miles from the Allied line.
In March 1946, Dan's thirteen exercise books arrived at the Billany home in Yeovil, Somerset. They became bestsellers and were translated into many languages.
Neither Dan nor David made it back to England. They are thought to have perished somewhere in the Apennines.
Dan Billany's story is told in the biography Dan Billany Hull's Lost Hero by Valerie A Reeves and Valerie Showan.
Fontanellato is a remarkable place to visit. Not just for its ancient monastery and medieval fortress, but for the remarkable stories of the prisoners of war who, for a time, were imprisoned here and who, with the help and bravery of so many local inhabitants, sought to escape from the yoke of fascism.
The Battle of Garfagnana is little more than a footnote in the military history of the Second World War, but it's worth studying for a number of reasons (not least because it's such a beautiful region in northern Tuscany).
Known to the Germans as Unternehmen Wintergewitter (Operation Winter Storm) and nicknamed the "Christmas Offensive"), the short battle was waged between the villages of Barga, Bagni di Lucca, Fornaci di Barga and, above all, the medieval fortress village of Sommocolonia.
Here, on 26 December 1944, in a short but ferocious battle, dozens of American servicemen of the American 'Buffalo Division' were killed.
The day I visited Sommocolonia couldn't have been more different from that winters day in 1944. Warm, green, still and quiet - a place of utter peace and tranquility.
In August 1944, the Gothic Line, the most northerly of the Italian defensive lines, which crossed Italy from the Ligurian Sea in the west to the Adriatic in the east along the natural barrier of the Appenine mountains, became the frontline of the Italian campaign.
In December 1944, the Buffalo Division, the nickname for the racially segregated US 92nd Infantry Division, manning the frontline. In November 1944, they had unsuccessfully attempted to liberate Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, a bustling market town that is now a hub for holiday makers staying in the region.
Amongst the men of the Buffalo Division stationed at Sommocolonia was 29-year-old artillery spotter Lt. John R. Fox. It's his job to call in the heavy artillery in the event of an attack.
An Italian counter offensive in this zone, intended to disrupt the front and reduce the pressure near Bologna, had originally been proposed by Mussolini. The attack finally came at 4am on Boxing Day.
Fox takes up his position at the Sommocolonia hilltop, from where he begins to call in the heavy artillery.
The inexperienced and poorly equipped Buffalo Division, alongside 25 partisans, faces the brunt of the initial assault.
Whilst they cannot be expected to halt the advance, they can slow it down.
At noon, the order comes to retreat.
From his observation post, which is now surrounded by enemy troops, Fox calls in artillery coordinates that fall closer and closer to his own position. He then asks for a smoke screen to cover a withdrawal by the few GIs and partisans who can still walk. Then he orders a heavy concentration of mortar and 105mm shells on his own observation post, which is by now completely surrounded.
Not only was this action intended to inflict maximum damage on the enemy, it also provided his comrades with a smokescreen through which they could escape the carnage. Of the 95 American and Italian Partisan defenders of Sommocolonia, just 18 made it out alive.
For the German-Italian force, the offensive was initially a success, penetrating more than 25 kilometres inside the Allies lines. Although an Austrian unit captured Sommocolonia and Barga on 26 December, they were too weak to hold them and, by 1 January 1945, the Allies had more or less re-established their original positions.
Of the 457 Medals of Honor awarded during the Second World War, none were awarded to an African American. In 1992, the US Army commissioned a study to investigate why.
On January 13, 1997, First Lieutenant John R. Fox was finally awarded the Medal of Honor for his action in Sommocolonia. His citation reads:
"at 0400 hours on 26 December 1944, an organized attack by uniformed German units began. Being greatly outnumbered, most of the United States Infantry forces were forced to withdraw from the town, but Lt. Fox and some other members of his observer party voluntarily remained on the second floor of a house to direct defensive artillery fire. At 0800 hours, Lieutenant Fox reported that the Germans were in the streets and attacking in strength. He then called for defensive artillery fire to slow the enemy advance. As the Germans continued to press the attack towards the area that Lieutenant Fox occupied, he adjusted the artillery fire closer to his position."
At least seven civilians died in Sommocolonia that day. German war records show that 43 members of the Austrian Fourth Mountain Division also died. About 40 men of the Buffalo Division also fell in the battle.
In Sommocolonia's Piazza Martiri della Resistenza, a memorial in a wooded park commemorates fallen Italian resistance fighters. Next to it stands a smaller memorial, erected in recognition of the bravery of Buffalo Soldier Lt. John Fox who, in order to repel an enemy attack, died after deliberately calling for artillery fire on his own position.
Under a sprawling linden tree, in the medieval village of Castiglione di Garfagnana, looking out over the Serchio Valley, stands a fading plaque in memory of Luigi Dini.
Castiglione di Garfagnana is a village that embraces its history. Two days previously we had made our annual visit to its 'Sagra Mediavale', during which the entire village basks in its medieval origins. In fact, the origins or Castiglione can be traced to the year 723, but the town remains defined by its medieval layout, walls and stronghold towers.
Standing beneath the linden and gazing through the mid-morning haze upwards towards Corfino, the plaque couldn't occupy a more picturesque spot. Whilst southern Tuscany attracts the tourists, this peaceful and picturesque corner of Tuscany is well worth exploring.
Seventy years previously, this region, as with the rest of northern Italy, was in the grips of a brutal German occupation. An atmosphere of fear and repression hung over the occupied territory. The formation of the Black Brigades (fascist Italian paramilitary groups loyal to Mussolini) had done little to quell partisan activity. If anything, partisan hostilities intensified during this period. Throughout August 1944, acts of retribution were commonplace with massacres of men, women and children committed at Bardine, San Terenzo and Santa Anna (where, on 12 August 1944, 560 local villagers and refugees, including 130 children, were murdered and their bodies burnt by the SS).
Luigi Dini is the 36-year-old leader of a band of partisans operating in the countryside to the north of Lucca. On 25 September 1944, he is captured in the village of Filicaia. The next day, in the nearby village of Castiglione, he is to be interrogated by the Black Brigade. Somehow he has managed to conceal on his person a hand grenade. Rather than face interrogation and torture, he activates the grenade. He dies, taking two Germans and an interpreter with him.
His corpse is thrown on a pile of muck, because "it deserves nothing more". He is then buried outside the Porta Inferi, the ancient gateway to the village.
On All Souls Day, 2 November 1944, Don Lemmi, the pastor of Castiglione, announces that he will bless the body of Luigi Dini where it is buried. In order to avoid retaliation and reprisal, he advises the people of the village to stay away. In an remarkable display of resistance, the men and women of Castiglione disobey his advice and, under the eyes of the watching Germans, observe a short blessing ceremony outside the ancient Porta Inferi of Castiglione, above the Serchio Valley, where the linden tree now stands.