...and the village priest who foiled it
One of my regular (okay, occasional) runs takes me into the hills to the north of Verona, above the sleepy village of Avesa. Following a well-marked route, the country road gives way to a dirt track and finally a rugged and rocky scramble to the top. After a lung-busting 15 minute climb, I soon emerge at the Croce dell’ Ongarine (Avesa's very own version of Rio's iconic Cristo Redentor!).
The Cross offers fantastic views over Avesa and Verona itself. To the south, on a clear day, you can see beyond the city to the flat Venetian plain and the Val Padana (the Po Valley) to the west you can just catch a glimpse of the distant Lake Garda and the mountains beyond.
Pausing for 5 minutes to catch my breath and enjoy the views from the Cross, the path (now mercifully flat) continues northwards. Another 5 minutes along the trail and I break right, making a fairly steep lateral descent through the brush. I soon re-emerge on the main path, still high above the northern part of the village of Avesa. A cluster of rather sinister looking caves dares you to enter. So far, I’ve resisted the urge.
Instead, I navigate my way through the olive groves to the valley floor and am soon passing a long-disused quarry and entering the village itself from the north side. Stopping to buy a brioche and something sweet to drink, I make my way to the long, shady piazza, across the footbridge, over a narrow babbling brook and, finally, underneath the spring blossom, to a statue that I’d noticed on a previous run.
At the foot of the statue is a plaque that describes the dramatic events that took place here on 25 April 1945. In order to understand the significance of that day, we need to go back a little, to September 1943.
Allied invasion of Italy
The Allied invasion of the Italian mainland had begun in early September 1943. The Allies had hoped to make a quick drive north, through the "soft underbelly" of Europe, and into the German heartland. Instead, nineteen months later, after hard fighting up the rugged mountainous spine of the Italian peninsula, the Anglo-American alliance had still not reached its objective. Operation Grapeshot, the spring offensive in Italy, started on 6 April 1945. It’s objective, "...to destroy the maximum number of enemy forces south of the Po, force crossings of the Po and capture Verona”.
In order to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, at dawn on 26 April 1945 the German commanders based in Verona received orders to destroy 40,000 crates of TNT.
The explosives were stored in a limestone quarry in the hills to the north of Verona, just beyond the village of Avesa. The explosion, it is said, would have caused the destruction not only of Avesa, but also of much of the city of Verona.
The village priest
Don Giuseppe Graziani, a military chaplain, had been told of the German plan to blow up the munitions dump by a local teacher. On hearing the news, the priest rushed by bike to the city headquarters of the German command and begged permission to safely remove the TNT from the polveriera before it was detonated. Don Giusseppe hastily returned to Avesa, taking three bells from the altar of the church and summoning the men of the village, who respond immediately to his call. A human chain of 1000 people work through the night to remove the explosives from the munitions dump. With rosary beads in hand, the women and the elderly gather at the church, praying for a miracle.
Meanwhile, the German occupiers receive news that the Nazi leadership in Berlin is crumbling and that the allies are near. The order is given to blow up the gunpowder. The people of Avesa flee the quarry, leaving many crates of TNT still inside. Shortly after dawn on the 26 April 1945 American forces penetrate the city of Verona. At 6.30 am, the order to detonate the TNT is executed. There is a huge explosion, clouds of white and black smoke erupt with tongues of fire. A huge boulder lands on a house, causing extensive damage. Seven villagers are killed in the explosion. Had it not been for the bravery and courage of the people of Avesa, led by Don Graziani, the damage would have been much worse.
A few days later, on 28 April 1945, Mussolini is captured and shot by Italian partisans near Lake Como. A few days later, Hitler commits suicide in his bunker in Berlin. The war in Europe is over.
The 25th April is Liberation Day in Italy. In Avesa, the people will gather on this day to remember the dramatic events that took place here all those years ago. I will be joining them to commemorate the end of this dark chapter in world history.
Richard Hough writes about history, football, wine, whisky, culture + travel and is currently working on a trilogy about wartime Verona.