When I was researching the background to ‘Theatre of War’, the third book in my ‘Follies’ quartet, Ihad a really lucky meeting. The book is set in World War ll and my hero, Richard, an agent for SOE, was going to work with the Italian partisans in an area called the Garfagnana, a valley whichruns north from the town of Lucca. So that year we took our holiday in a house in Trassilico, a tiny village perched on top of a hill south of Castelnuovo. The Garfagnana is a magical area, a narrow, wooded valley bounded by steep hills, almost all crowned by a medieval fortress and its attendant village. Beyond the hills rise mountains, the Appenines to the east and to the west the Alpi Apuane. In the Middle Ages the Via Francigena, the pilgrim route from the St Bernard Pass to Rome passed along this valley.
I asked our landlady’s daughter if she knew anything about the partisan activity that had occurred in that area during the war. She did not, but came back the next day to say that her mother had told her that their doctor’s father had served with the partisans all through the war. He was still alive and very keen to make sure that subsequent generations had an accurate idea of what the partisans had done and why. He came up to the village and spent the best part of two hours giving me a detailed account. He had total recall of what happened during those years and it was clear that they had made an indelible impression on him. The interview was difficult as he spoke only Italian and although I have some knowledge of the language I relied heavily on the Landlady’s daughter to translate. His name was Silvano and here is his story, as accurately as I was able to transcribe it:
It was in September 1943 that Silvano received his call-up papers. He was required to fight for the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini against the British and Americans. Silvano’s family, however, were all anti-fascist and his father had been forced to flee to America because of his opposition to Mussolini. Silvano had no intention of fighting for his family’s enemy. He had only one option – to join the partisans hiding out in the mountains above his home.
The group was led by a young man called Leandro Puccetti, a medical student and the son of a respected family. They were living in a mountain refuge, high up on the slopes of the mountain called Pania Secca, above the village of Alpe de Sant Antonio. They spied on the movement of German troops, stole weapons and carried out acts of sabotage. Life was very hard. In order to get bread or other supplies they had to descend 3,000 feet to the village. Eventually they decided that they would have to move down to the village in order to survive the winter. The villagers were suspicious at first, because the authorities had told them that the partisans were bandits and would kill them and steal their food. When they saw that this was not true they accepted the partisans and shared their food with them. Even so, supplies were very short. They lived on bread made from chestnut flour, with meat occasionally when they killed a sheep or a chicken.
After Mussolini was deposed and the armistice was signed they were joined by an Englishman, Major George Oldham, an escaped prisoner of war. Unfortunately, he fell in love with Leandro’s girlfriend. They married and Major Oldham went to lead another group of partisans in Carregino. From then on relations between the two leaders were not good, but the two groups came together after the first battle with the Germans.
This took place on July 1st, 1944 on the slopes of Mt. Pania. The fighting lasted for three hours and cost the lives of three partisans, but the Germans were forced to retreat.The group began to receive parachute drops of supplies from the British. They dropped aSten gun and other armaments, warm clothes – and large quantities of tea. The tea was exchanged for bread with German civilian workers.One night in August 1944, a partisan sentry shot a German officer and killed him. In revenge the Germans killed the inhabitants of local villages. In Sant Anna di Stazzema they killed 583 men, women and children. This was one of the worst acts of reprisal carried out during the war. For a while, the partisans were unsure whether to give up or to stay and continue the struggle. Leandro was absent at the time, on a mission to another group, but when he returned the partisans took the decision to stay and fight.
The battle with the Germans started at 2.30 a.m. on August 29th. The Germans attacked the partisan camp outside Alpe di Sant Antonio. The partisans resisted until midday but at that time they had to give up and those who remained escaped into the mountains. Only six men remained with Silvano and one of these died from his wounds during the night. Of the rest, only two were unwounded. Leandro had received a wound from a dum-dum bullet, which expands on impact so that the exit hole is very much bigger than the entry wound. This is a type of bullet forbidden under the Geneva convention. They took him to Sassi, a neighbouring village, and then, disguised as a woman in labour, they took him to the hospital in Castelnuovo. The doctors here were sympathetic but in spite of their efforts to save him Leandro died on Sept. 3rd.
At this point the partisans were ready to give up. Silvano went home to see his mother, but she was unable to understand what he had been doing. After a while the partisans decided to continue the fight. The list of battles went on, complete with names of places, dates and times, the number of those killed or wounded, prisoners taken, etc, until the arrival of the Americans in 1944.
At Christmas in 1944 there was the last great battle, involving all the partisans in the area. Major Oldham had left when the Americans arrived, so his group joined Silvano’s. They called themselves the Gruppo Valanga, which means ‘avalanche’, and were now recognised as Italian soldiers. By April the Germans had been pushed out of the Garfagnana but there were still small battles with a few who remained. Some of the partisans went into the mountains to spy on the fascists and find out where their arms were hidden. They told the allied troops and the Russians destroyed the arms deposits.
After this the Americans told the partisans that they could go home if they wanted to. Some did but some chose to remain with the American forces. Silvano went with them to Parma and then to Piacenza and Regio Emilia. The partisans crossed the River Po on rafts and reached Milan four days before the Americans. At the beginning of May they heard the official announcement that the war was over.
Hilary Green is the author of Theatre of War