Welcome to Chapter 2 of our saga of Rome under German occupation during the Second World War. Apologies in advance for the unpleasant content of this post.
Allied forces landed in Italy in September 1943. It took them nearly a year to reach Rome, thanks to German forces, fierce winter weather and the mountainous terrain around Cassino where they stalled for many months. But their arrival had given new hope to the Italian resistance and in March 1944, the Group of Partisan Action (GAP) was determined to take action. Every day at precisely 2:00, the 156 men of the 11th Company of the 3rd Battalion of the SS Regiment Bozen marched along Via Rasella — near Piazza Barberini — on their way back from target practice at Tor di Quinto. It doesn’t seem too smart to keep to such a strict schedule in a city filled with people who hate you and, in fact, the GAP decided to blow up the soldiers during one of their marches. On 23 March 1944, the partisans loaded 18 kilos of TNT into a street sweeper’s cart and medical student Rosario Bentivegna got ready to light the fuse with his pipe exactly 45 seconds before the soldiers passed by. Other GAP members were there with machine guns and hand grenades.
Despite some glitches – the Germans were over an hour and a half late for various reasons and the mission was nearly aborted – the bomb went off followed by machine gun fire and four hand grenades. The partisans then faded into the crowd. Twenty six SS troops were killed instantly and 60 were wounded. More men would die over the next several days; the death toll eventually reached 42.
It is fair to say that the Germans freaked out. The local commandant, General Kurt Malzer, arrived a few minutes later and wanted to blow up the entire block. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Malzer had to content himself with a brutal door-to-door roundup of just about everyone in the neighbourhood.
After some dithering about what form the reprisal should take, it was decided to execute ten Italians for every German that had been killed in the attack. Hitler gave the order himself and required that the reprisals be carried out within 24 hours. By that time, the number of dead had climbed to 33. Colonel Herbert Kappler, commander of the army’s security services, was put in charge of drawing up the list of Italians to be killed.This was easier said than done. There were hardly any Jews left in Rome and only a few people on death row. So they made up the numbers with political prisoners and people seized during the roundup on Via Rasella. In fact, the final death list – by mistake – had 5 more names on it than the required 330. The extra people were killed anyway so they couldn’t tell what they’d seen. The youngest victim was 15.
On 24 March, SS officers Erich Priebke and Karl Haas led the slaughter inside the tunnels of some disused tufa quarries near the Via Ardeatina.
Only a few of the officers on the squad had ever actually killed anyone before and Kappler had several cases of cognac delivered to the caves to calm their nerves. The idea was to deliver a single bullet into the cerebellum of each kneeling prisoner. But it didn’t turn out that way. The cave quickly filled up with dead bodies. Things got slippery and the Germans got drunk and sloppy. Some of the prisoners had their heads nearly blown off; others probably survived the shooting: a number of people were found near the mouth of the cave with dirt under their nails from where they’d tried to dig their way out. The bodies were stacked in piles a metre tall and the cave was closed with dynamite.
The operation had been top secret and it was only after the liberation of Rome by the Allies that the quarry was opened and the terrible facts of the slaughter revealed. Three hundred and twenty two of the 335 victims were identified.
After the war, Kappler was sentenced to life in prison. He was later transferred to hospital because of ill health and his wife smuggled him out in a suitcase in 1977. Priebke fled to South America — with help from the Vatican — and was only captured in 1994. Given his age, his life sentence was commuted to house arrest. Hass went to work for the CIA, which protected him from indictment. He returned to Italy to testify against Priebke, then changed his mind and tried to flee, thus losing his immunity. He was convicted in 1998 and served under house arrest until his death in 2004.
Although the Fosse Ardeatine reprisal was particularly vicious, it was hardly unique. Over 9 000 Italian civilians were executed in reprisal for partisan attacks. Today, the Fosse Ardeatine is a national monument and the burial place of the 335 people who perished there on 24 March 1944.