From the street fighting that heralded the German occupation to the Gestapo repression that followed, Rome – City in Terror: The Nazi Occupation 1943–44 is the gripping story of the German occupation of Rome from the Italian armistice in September 1943 until the Allied liberation of the city on 5 June 1944. In today's blog post, author Victor Failmezger gives a brief overview of the characters in this fascinating title.
Writing Rome – City in Terror: The Nazi Occupation 1943–44 presented many challenges. As I plunged into the many English-language books on the subject and the 3,500 pages of German and Italian documents, I discovered that to adequately tell the story of the nine months of the German occupation, I would need to write about a large number of men and women. Often these diverse characters interacted with each other, so it was important to keep track of who they were. I resolved to include a Dramatis Personae as a quick reference tool in the front of the book. It is my thought that discussing some of these people might be a good way to introduce you to the book.
As literally hundreds of individuals are mentioned in the book, I made the decision that those who appeared more than five times should be included in this list. Seventeen Allied servicemen are listed, and they represent the breadth of nations that were fighting the Germans. Many had been captured in North Africa and gained freedom after Italian POW camps were flung open when Italy left the Axis in September 1943. Other servicemen made their way to Rome after they had been shot down, captured or had otherwise found themselves on Italian soil. They came from the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps; from British regiments, including the Green Howards, Royal Artillery, and tank and parachute regiments, as well as the British Palestinian Pioneer Corps and Special Operations Executive (SOE); from the USA came servicemen from the Army Air Force, the Rangers and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS); and finally several came from the Yugoslav Army. These men performed a variety of services for the Rome Escape Line, the clandestine support organization for escaped Allied POWs. I am sure Osprey readers will enjoy reading about their activities and adventures.
One cannot write about the Nazi occupation of Rome without a discussion of those members of the Roman Catholic clergy who were key members of the Escape Line. Many of these priests came from Italy, but also from France, Germany, Malta, Ireland and the USA. They all play major roles in our story. Most of those cited actively hid Allied servicemen. They include the Irish Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who is credited with the first efforts to aid these servicemen. Others helped the hundreds of Jewish refugees in the city. There is even a renegade priest who worked with the Gestapo, and another who helped ex-Nazis flee to South America. The reader will also enjoy reading excerpts from the eyewitness diary of an American nun, Mother Mary, who worked at the Vatican Information Bureau and provided many insights into life in the occupied city.
Rome under the occupation was unique in that the Vatican was one of the few places where Allied and German diplomats rubbed shoulders. British and American diplomats not only wrote about conditions in Rome, but also were able to get funds from their home governments for the Escape Line – so much so, that by the end of occupation more than 4,000 escaped Allied servicemen received support from them. Their German counterparts were aggressive and highly competent in their efforts to thwart the endeavors of the Allies and the Pope against the Nazi occupiers. The broader international community also rallied to help the Allied diplomats and priests, and the most prominent of these was Mrs. Henrietta Chevalier, a Maltese woman who hid many escapees in her tiny apartment until she too was made to flee Nazi oppression.
High-level Nazis play a major role in the story. In addition to Adolf Hitler and Field Marshal Herman Göring, there is Heinrich Himmler, the German Interior Minister and Chief of the SS (along with his Rome-based personal representative Colonel Eugen Dollmann, who was gay) and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the Wehrmacht Commander-in-Chief for German forces in Italy, is a frequent visitor to the story. Two uber-Nazis likely familiar to Osprey readers are SS-Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny, the man ordered by Hitler to rescue Mussolini, and SS-Hauptsturmführer Theodor Dannecker, Eichmann’s infamous troubleshooter, who was sent to Rome to round up more than 1,000 Jews and send them to Auschwitz.
In Rome, Herbert Kappler was the head of the SS and the Gestapo. His word was law, and sooner or later he came to know about everything that was happening in the city through his extensive network of spies and informants. Kappler had a gaggle of capable and equally ruthless assistants, including the head of the Gestapo prison at Via Tasso, Eric Priebke. After the war Priebke was smuggled to Argentina, where he was discovered by an American TV journalist and deported back to Italy. There he stood trial for his part in the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, the murder of 335 Italian men and boys in reprisal for a partisan attack on a Nazi police column. There are many other Nazis who are included in the main story, and the book includes an Appendix containing names of the known Rome SS members and their agents and collaborators. When known, their post-war activities are also noted, including those of the individuals who joined the West German Intelligence Service.
As expected, many of the people listed in the Dramatis Personae are Italian. Included are those who maintained their loyalty to Vittorio Emanuele III, King of Italy. These major participants are the senior military officers, such as Marshal Badoglio, who ran the government and sued the Allies for peace after the ouster of Mussolini. Unfortunately, as will be seen in the book, they were largely ineffective in protecting the country from a takeover by their former Axis partner.
Members of the royalist Italian Military Intelligence Service (SIM), such as Colonel Montezemolo, are also listed. Those individuals set up a clandestine intelligence service in Rome to pass on information to Italian royalists and the Allies, and they often paid for this with their lives. They reported on German troop and supply movements through the city and transmitted that information via a network of clandestine radios. Some worked closely with the American OSS and elements of the British SOE and were killed when discovered by the Gestapo. Others worked directly for the Rome Escape Line in a wide variety of positions.
There are of course dyed-in-the-wool Fascists who play important roles in our story. Some of these were senior ministers of the newly formed Italian Social Republic, the Salò Republic. Lesser lights were Pietro Caruso, Rome’s Fascist police chief, and Pietro Koch, the head of a Special Fascist Police Unit, Banda Koch. These men and others, including double agents, facilitated the iron grip that the city experienced under Kappler.
The final group of names to be considered is those of the young men and women, mostly university students, who shortly after the armistice formed a resistance movement in Rome and became partisans. This tight group caused major havoc in the city, with multiple attacks on German institutions, personnel and vehicles. Their courage, resourcefulness and actions are celebrated throughout the book.
Having written the above, I feel I am remiss in leaving out so many important characters; however, rest assured they are in the book and I hope that you the reader will come to know them as I do.
Rome – City in Terror: The Nazi Occupation 1943–44 publishes 17 September. Preorder your copy now.