A hero's welcome
On 26 September 1938, Benito Mussolini swept into Verona. To say that he received a hero's welcome doesn't quite capture the incredible scenes on the streets of Verona that day. Some 200,000 adoring followers flocked to Piazza Bra to hear him speak (see pictures above and below).
Despite his omnipotence, the story of the rise (and fall) of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini remains an enigma to many outside the peninsula.
While most are aware (in fairly general terms) of the crucial role he played as a central belligerent in the Second World War, few know much about the dictator's origins and rise to power. In fact, I'm often asked by curious visitors to explain a bit more about who he was and where he came from.
This article attempts to shed some light on this dark period of Italian history.
The young Mussolini
Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was born on 29 July 1883 in the small town of Dovia di Predappio, in the province of Forlì in Romagna. His father Alessandro Mussolini was a blacksmith and committed socialist. His mother Rosa was a devoutly Catholic schoolteacher. Benito qualified as an elementary schoolmaster, but his destiny lay elsewhere....
Sunday 14 June 2015 is Bomba Day in Verona.
A recently discovered 500lb Second World War bomb will be detonated in Verona on Sunday morning.
The bomb was discovered during excavation works for the construction of a new car park near the city’s historic military arsenal.
On Sunday between the hours of 0800 and 1200, a significant part of the city will be in lockdown. Some 27,000 residents within a 700 metre radius (the Zona Rosa) will be evacuated while military bomb disposal experts defuse the device.
Although the evacuation is a precautionary measure, failure to comply could result in a €200 fine. Those who live in the ‘Orange Zone’ (between 700 and 1000 metres from the bomb site) are permitted to remain at home, but, for safety reasons, are instructed to stay away from windows and balconies.
In addition to the permanent residents, there are over 50 hotels and guest houses within the Zona Rosa, accommodating between 5,000 and 10,000 guests. For the hotels concerned, the evacuation is a considerable inconvenience in what is, after all, the high summer season. The Zona Rosa also includes important tourist sites Castelvechio and the Basilica San Zeno, while the Orange Zone reaches as far as the city’s iconic Arena.
Personally, I’m not taking any chances and will be spending the weekend in Tuscany!
This being Italy, though, there are of course those who intend to ignore the evacuation order. The local media has already reported that the elderly of the zone are particularly reluctant to leave their homes. Their attitude seems to be that they didn’t leave the city during the war and they are not going to do evacuate now. They’ll simply close their shutters tight and hope for the best.
The American made bomb is thought to have been dropped by the Allies in July 1944 in one of the numerous bombardments of the city. Quite possibly, an AN-M64 General Purpose Bomb, it was particularly suitable against ammunition dumps, railway engines and cars, airplanes on the ground, all types of construction and light surface vessels.
Few Italian cities escaped the terror of arial bombardment during the Second World War. According to official ISTAT statistics, there were around 60,000 civilian casualties of bombing during World War II. More recent research suggests that the figure may in fact be closer to 80,000.
Because of her important strategic position as the southern gateway to the crucial Brenner route through the Alps, Verona was an important target for heavy Allied bombings and suffered considerable damage during the war. According to Italy’s Sorrow (by @jamesholland), by the beginning of 1945 the Brenner pass was the most heavily defended complex in the world and losses of allied aircraft were high.
On 6 July 1944, twenty-eight aircraft dropped 84 tons of 500-lb bombs on the Marshalling Yards of Verona. The target was well covered with only a few bombs short. Flak was heavy, medium to intense, and inaccurate. Three to four EIA attacked the formation before being engaged by the escort. One of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers near the rear of the formation was seen to go down and explode. Three or four chutes were reported seen. Sergeant Smith was the tailgunner. He died along with 8 crew. Two of his comrades survived to tell the story…
1st Lt. William L. McIlhargie:
"I was blown out of the plane, unconscious. I came to the following Saturday afternoon and have no knowledge of the others. I saw Sgt. Alexo, the radio man, last. He had a flak wound in his leg and it didn't look good. There wasn't time to give him first aid. I had just arrived there for that reason, then the ship blew up and that is all I remember. The last conversation I had with Lt. Runyon was to ask permission to go back and give first aid to the radio operator."
S/Sgt. Paul Alexo, Jr., Radio Operator:
"I was blown out of the plane with two others when the plane blew up. S/Sgt. Smith had received a 20mm wound in his chest and was blown out. He died on the ground. I saw him in the hospital, dead. Lt. Runyon did not get out. Sgt. Goulet was killed by a 20mm shell and was last seen lying on the floor of the plane. Sgt. Brower-Anchor was killed by a 20mm shell in his back and was lying on the floor, dead. S/Sgt. Miller was last seen at his guns when the ship exploded."
In 1989, two letters that tailgunner Sergeant Smith had written before his death in the skies above Verona were finally delivered to his surviving brother in Utah. They had got lost in transit and had somehow spent decades in storage in an attic in North Carolina.
William McIlhargie died on 3 October 2005 at Northwood Meadows in Cass City. He received the Purple Heart along with several other service awards for his bravery during the Second World War.
A subsequent raid by Martin B-26 Marauders, a twin-engined, 6-manned, medium bomber, took place on 13 July 1944. Sergeant Ernest Wall from Edinburgh was one of those who flew the Marauder over Verona in July 1944.
From an operational airfield at Pescara on the Adriatic, his first operation on 11 July 1944 was aborted due to bad weather (not unusual in North Italy). Subsequent targets were marshalling yards, road/rail junctions, and bridges over the River Adige, and all over the northern battleground area. Among the targets were factories and German HQs.
As the Marauders flew slowly and at low altitude above their drop zones, they were a prime target for anti-aircraft flak and most returned to base with holes. Many did not return.
The Marauder were often escorted by Spitfires, Kittyhawks or Mustangs and must have been an awesome but terrifying site for the residents below.
Indeed, in a recent article in a local newspaper, geographer and journalist Eugenio Turri Veronese, then only a child, described the terrible moments experienced by the citizens of the city when the Allied planes arrived:
"You could hear a distant rumble that made the windows vibrate and the objects on the dresser rattle. All of a sudden, life is awakened, with a shock. The panic reaches a peak with women weeping and the old reciting the rosary. The American planes brought fear to the neighbourhood, the apocalypse ... ".
The account presented in the local newspaper, l’Arena, on 13 July 1944, offers a somewhat different perspective, suggesting that while the raid targeted residential housing and a nursery school, there were few victims because the population promptly took refuge in shelters and the emergency services were, as always, ready and worked with dedication, technical skills and organisation. This account seems barely credible as one only has to only has to look at pictures taken at the time and listen to first hand accounts to understand the full extent of the destruction.
Following extensive reconstruction in the postwar period, there are few remaining signs of the bombardment of Verona during the Second World War.
But, if you look closely at buildings like the one on Piazza Pradaval (opposite the former SS Headquarters), you will see by the door a fading sign, white letters on a red background “RC” (rifugio civile). This sign indicates a shelter were the residents of Verona could take take cover during an air raid.
The bomb discovered near Verona's historic military arsenal is of course another reminder of the devastation and destruction that took place here and throughout Italy during the Second World War.
I am grateful to the Second Bombardment Association for the account of its account of the bombardment of Verona and the staff at Biblioteca Civica di Verona for helping me to access newspaper records from the time. You can read about Ernest Wall in Italy's Sorrow. Further details were found at: http://www.aircrew-saltire.org/lib010.htm
There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence-banished is banish'd from the world,
And world's exile is death.
Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 3
Those ancient walls of which Shakespeare spoke still guard some of Verona’s best-kept treasures. Amongst the gems it conceals, Parco Raggio di Sole, a green oasis of trees and play parks 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 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 the 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 divided and occupied 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) was given the task of occupying the island of Cephalonia. There followed a period of fascist occupation during which the civilian population suffered terrible hardship, with many dying from privation and hunger. The brutal occupation provides the historical backdrop to the story of Captain Correlli's Mandolin.
In September 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies, General Gandin faced a serious dilemma: to surrender to the Germans or resist? In the absence of specific orders from his superiors, he began negotiations with his German counterpart, Colonel Johannes Barge. The two men respected each other and concluded their discussions hopeful that the desperate situation could be resolved peacefully.
However, things soon deteriorated and on 11 September 1943, Barge gave 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 presented his troops with a poll: (i) join the Germans; (ii) surrender and be repatriated; (3) resist the Germans
The Italian troops favoured the third option and Gandin subsequently demanded that the Germans leave the island.
The massacre of Cefalonia
As the negotiations stalled, the Germans prepared to resolve the issue by force. Wehrmacht General Hubert Lanz was responsible for removing the Italian forces from the Greek islands. On the morning of 15 September, the Luftwaffe began bombarding the Italian positions.
Despite some help from the local population, the conscripts of the Acqui Division were no match for the battle-hardened German troops. After several days of combat, out of ammunition and with mounting casualties, the last Italians surrendered. German orders were to take no prisoners. The Italians were machine gunned where they stood. The massacre continued for a week.
In Corfu, resistance lasted only for a day, but all 280 Italian officers on the island were 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, could only watch on as captured Italian officers cried, prayed and sang. At the moment of execution, many called out for their mothers, wives and children. Alfred Richter, an Austrian, and one of the participants in the massacre, later remembered 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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A new teaching assignment at Verona’s Istituto Seghetti brings me to Piazza Cittadella.
After the lesson, I make my way across the square to Bar Colombus, a bright, elegant bar that doesn’t seem to have changed much in 70 years. With waiters dressed in the traditional attire of their profession, it retains the warmth and charm of bygone age and boasts a mouth-watering selection of pastries and panini, which, even at this late stage in the afternoon, look fresh and appetising.
Located to the south of Piazza Bra, just off Corso Porta Nuova, Piazza Cittadella takes its name from the ancient fortress that once stood here. The citadel, or fortress, was demilitarized in 1535 and the area was redesigned by the renowned Veronese architect Michele Sanmicheli.
Following a major car park redevelopment, Piazza Cittadella is once again beginning to discover a sense of purpose. While it lacks the character or beauty of Verona’s principal piazzas, a number of bars, theatres and schools, not to mention the car park itself, make this a busy hub for students and commuters to the city centre.
Aside from the tourist information office, however, there is little of obvious interest to the passing tourist.
But, if you look close enough, this unassuming piazza has some dark stories to tell.
On a building next to the bar, a plaque on the wall records that on 17 November 1918 one Andrea Luigi Paglieri was born here. Paglieri was a professor of law and political science. During the Second World War he was a lieutenant in the 5th Regiment "Lancers of Novara". He was awarded the Silver Medal, the Iron Cross II Class and the Military Cross for bravery.
After the 1943 armistice with the Allies, Italy was effectively fighting three wars - a war of liberation from the Nazis; a civil war against the Repubblica Sociale Italiana and an ideological war between the forces of fascism and communism. Paglieri joins the resistance. He stays with his family in Fossano, a small town in the northwest corner of Italy, from where he leads his comrades in prison raids and numerous acts of sabotage.
Nereo Toffaletti was a young railwayman from Verona. During the German occupation, many dissident railroaders engaged in acts of industrial boycott. The Germans realised what was happening and, on 22 June 1944, rounded-up and captured many of the dissidents. Nereo Toffaletti was amongst those herded together in Piazza Cittadella, to be sent to concentration camps in Germany. As he was being led away, he turned to embrace his mother.
For this gesture of defiance he was shot on the spot by a fascist guard.
A marble plaque on the building next to the Istituto Seghetti marks the spot where the young railwayman was killed.
On 1 August 1944, Andrea Paglier was taken prisoner by the Black Brigades. For ten days he was brutally tortured and beaten. With his mouth ripped open, he was paraded through the streets of Fossano and forced to pass in front of his own house. Afterwards, he wrote the following note:
Dear mother, [I'm writing badly because I’m handcuffed] but I assure you that I do not suffer and that I have never suffered. I am glad I saw you this morning in the garden and that you did not see me: so you didn’t see my pain. Thanks for all you have done for me and I apologize for all the sorrows that I have caused.
On 9 August 1944, Andrea is shot by firing squad.
The street leading to Piazza Cittadella now bears his name - via Andrea Paglieri.
Back in Bar Columbus, I finish my coffee. Dusk is falling as I walk back across the piazza towards my bike.
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