Fosse Ardeatine

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.

You can still see the bullet holes in some of the buildings on Via Rasella. The Germans thought they were being bombed by the Allies and strafed the buildings. © antmoose.

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.

The Ardeatine quarries today.

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.

There are 335 graves here.

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.

Each gravestone lists the name, occupation and age at time of death. The 11 unknown graves are marked ‘unknown.’

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.

Entrance to the Fosse Ardeatine national monument

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7 responses to “Fosse Ardeatine

  1. Ruth,
    These historical episodes, generally not well known to foreigners, are a detailed but tempered description of some of Italy’s saddest moments in history. Thank you for recounting them with the restraint and dignity they deserve.

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  4. Eccidio delle Fosse Ardeatine The Fosse Ardeatine Massacre
    (For My mother, Rachel)
    “Where history is not settled, the heroic dead
    continue to speak” Lyman Johnson

    The tourists gape down the Via Rasella
    never thinking what happen here
    on a windy March day in Rome where the pavement
    for the cars and pedestrians slumber like
    forgotten stone in the shade.
    Partisans killed terrorists in uniforms,
    Terror for terror.
    For on this street death occurred for those Italians
    from the province of South Tyrol
    who sided with the forces of oppression, that oppression
    like a sleeping darkness that awakes to stalk
    naive citizens who go about their business to live,
    Never knowing that rifle butts can smash
    window panes and splash the gardens with bullets
    that bring up lair of blood not vegetables
    under the bright Italian sunlight.

    Wind and the painter’s spatial distance of clouds
    with the sobs of rain bringing down the sanctuary
    of wreathes and pines that have closed the eyes
    of the dead in war.
    Three hundred and thirty five Italian prisoners
    taken to Ardeatine caves; amid dirt and stone,
    all of them shot in reprisal; workers, lawyers,
    doctors, a boy, a general and colonel, partisans, Jews,
    and those who were picked-up while casually walking down the streets
    to see a lover or buy some bread (the ration cards
    like butterflies in coat pockets wanting to escape
    the darkness for the hunger of light) The boulders of the cave wet with tears,
    Those not yet dead crawling into the cave’s galleries
    to die with dignity.

    The Resistance priest, Don Petro Pappagallo, gives
    the final blessing for those to be shot
    with a bullet in the cerebellum,
    “Night and Fog” to hide the terror in the silence
    of denial… Fog and Night over the skies of Rome,
    Where the Forum once again awakens with its shrieks
    of ancient terror.
    Grottoes of the Fish sign, Renaissance paintings stoically
    hung on museum walls that are painted a clean white.
    The killer, Erich Priebke, back in the caves
    forcing a fellow officer to shoot a victim
    all in the name of “Duty”, the living cadaver, Priebke, who lived to be a hundred in a country,
    where sunlight, good wine, a stroll along the streets,
    The beauty of glass and clothes seduces the eye
    along the scattered fringes of life.

    In the Ardeatine caves,
    “The order has already been carried out.”
    Piles of bodies, the executioners in a drunken state,
    The engineers seal the caves with explosions like
    a horde of shambled dreams in the darkness
    where there is neither night nor day.
    On a hillside outside Rome
    in the middle of October sixty-nine years later, When Italy shows
    her beauty in autumn with light rain, the cold
    biting the faces of lovers hovering beneath an umbrella,
    I see the Roman historian, Polybius,
    taking notes with a harsh smile
    on those who have taken to the streets
    protesting the crime.
    Luis Lázaro Tijerina, Burlington, VT, U.S.

  5. Pingback: Erich Priebke/16 October 1943 | My Life: Part Two

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