The Battle for Rome September 1943

Carla Capponi, an attractive, petite, fair-haired University of Rome student employed as a secretary, lived with her mother, Maria Tamburri,* in a large apartment that overlooked Trajan’s Column. She dressed elegantly, never leaving home without gloves. A Florentine, Carla Capponi was descended from nobility on her father’s side. Her great grandmother was Viennese, Jewish, and a marchioness, but after her father died the family fell on hard times. Expensive artwork, Etruscan vases, and some of their once elegant furnishings were sold off to pay for food and rent.

Every night mother and daughter clandestinely listened to the BBC. During the early evening of September 8, 1943, they had heard US General Eisenhower broadcast the news that Marshal Badoglio and the king had signed an armistice with the Allies to pull Italy out of the war. Announcements from both Badoglio and the king had followed. Like the rest of Rome, Capponi and her mother were thrilled at the news, even though it was uncertain what would happen next. The answer came early the next morning: German troops invaded Rome

Despite the power vacuum and lack of organization, some Italian soldiers resisted heroically. During the night of September 8/9, the German 3rd Panzergrenadier Division attacked Italian troops on the northern outskirts of Rome about 10 miles along Via Flaminia, north of the city. Italian Engineer Lieutenant Ettore Rosso, of the Ariete Division, had just completed mining a bridge and the road leading up to it, to prevent German troops from entering the city. Seeing the Germans approaching, he sent his men back towards Rome, while he remained with four volunteers. As the first Germans, led by an unknown colonel, crossed the mined bridge, Rosso fell on the detonator and blew up the bridge. A section of the roadway collapsed, killing the German colonel and wounding many soldiers. Lieutenant Rosso himself was killed.

Along Via Salaria to the northeast of the city, other units of the Piave Division held the German panzergrenadiers in check at Monterotondo, a small town approximately 15 miles northeast of Rome. At dawn, units from General Student’s paratroops dropped on Centro A, the Italian Army Headquarters at Monterotondo and the secret headquarters for the Comando Supremo. There the paratroopers captured 30 generals and 150 other officers.

At the same time, the 2nd Parachute Division attacked the Piacenza Division near Frascati to the southeast. There and elsewhere during that night, the Germans employed subterfuge to disarm the Italians by waving white flags and showing false written orders.

As dawn broke on September 9, Italian forces to the southwest of the city attempted to resist the German advance at Montagnola, a few blocks east of the EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma, the Rome Universal Exhibition). The fighting was fierce between the experienced Wehrmacht units and a hastily cobbled-together Italian defensive force. A monument in Piazzale dei Caduti (Square of the Fallen) today lists the toll of the fierce fighting: 26 servicemen killed – 17 named Sardinian grenadiers, six listed as unknowns, and three Carabinieri – and 11 civilians, including a mother of five, a 16-year old boy, a Catholic nun, and a war invalid.

Italian troops along the Via Ostiense streamed past the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls and fell back toward Rome and into the Mussolini-built garden suburb of Garbatella. German troops were hot on their heels. At Garbatella the Italian forces briefly delayed the Germans and then fell back to the Porta San Paolo, the ancient gate in the Aurelian wall at the 1st-century BC white marble pyramid tomb of the Roman magistrate Caius Cestius. This action would forever be named the battle of the Piramide Cestia. Ironically, the pyramid is across a piazza from the Ostiense train station. The station, built in an austere, fascist style, was newly completed in time to welcome Hitler’s 1938 visit to Rome; now German troops were simply following in his footsteps.

By now the defenders at the pyramid were a ragtag collection of men from different units. Stragglers from the Sardinian Grenadiers were reinforced by fragments from other units. From the Sassari Division came men from the I and II Battalions of the 151st Infantry together with the III Battalion of the 152nd Infantry. These infantrymen were augmented by two companies of the XII Mortar Battalion and even a group from the 34th Artillery, although without their guns, as well as the V Battalion of sappers

From the Ariete Division came an armored group from the Montebello Lancers (Lancieri) together with a battery of artillery and even a battalion of officer candidates. Other straggler units determined to join in the desperate defense included a PAI battalion from the Colonna Cheren, a Carabinieri recruitment battalion, the Carabinieri Pastrengo Squadron, and a parachute battalion. There were also several other smaller groups of soldiers. Although exact numbers are not available, there were not many defenders.

On paper the Italian Army still had at least 20,000 more men than the Germans when the attack against the city was launched. Yet this numerical advantage was merely that – theory. In reality, the Italian military was seemingly incapable of conducting any kind of meaningful defense of Rome. Theories abound as to why. The most widely accepted says the government’s priority was to cover the escape of the king, Badoglio, and other military chiefs as they fled the city. Other reasons are speculative. The first cites a secret agreement with the Holy See to abandon the city and thereby spare the civilian population a bloodbath. A second cites a secret agreement between Field Marshal Kesselring and Marshal Badoglio to spare the city if he and the king left. Finally, by not formally defending Rome, General Ambrosio and Marshal Badoglio reasoned that the entire blame for any clashes or destruction in the city would fall squarely upon the Germans. However, the simplest explanation may be that with the announcement of the armistice most of the war-weary Italian soldiers simply walked away and left their units for home. There were too few soldiers left to adequately defend the city against the more experienced, better-equipped and better-led Germans.

But those Italian troops who were attempting a defense were soon augmented by enraged civilians. By mid-morning the long-suppressed citizens of Rome valiantly mobilized themselves into full battle. The anti-fascist Committee of Opposition called for civilians to take up arms and defend the city against the German invaders. All across Rome, ordinary citizens opened up hidden weapons depots in answer to the call. Anything would do: antique rifles, pistols, hand grenades, and ammunition were removed from basements and even World War I vintage weapons were broken out of their display cases at the Bersaglieri Museum at the Porta Pia City Gate.

Following the call, a reserve officer of the Sardinian Grenadiers, university professor Raffaello Persichetti, took weapons he had hidden in his apartment near Piazza Navona. Armed, he blithely boarded a public tram to the Porta San Paolo to join the group of Italian soldiers and civilians erecting barricades. But Rome’s right and left hands did not know what they were doing. Local police, operating under old orders from Marshal Badoglio, dutifully arrested many civilians for openly carrying arms until they could be convinced that the Germans were now their enemy.

Hearing the call from the street for volunteers, Capponi announced that she was going to fight the Germans. Her mother, horrified, forbade her to go, but the headstrong young woman dashed out the door and raced to Porta San Paolo, toward the sound of the guns.

By the time she arrived, fighting was already fierce, the ancient Pyramid of Caius Cestius bearing the scars of stray bullets which can still be seen today on the ancient white marble. Two Italian light tanks were on the scene offering resistance. General Giacomo Carboni had additional tanks but these were unusable due to a lack of fuel.

Capponi had no military experience but she helped strengthen the barricade and joined other women rescuing and caring for the many wounded. These were taken to a Dominican convent, the church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, where a medical station had hastily been established, and to the Fate Bene Fratelli Hospital on the Tiber Island.

The Germans brought up several panzers which quickly pushed aside the flimsy barricades and swept away the two Italian light tanks. The Germans also employed artillery and flame throwers. Facing this onslaught, the small units of the Italian Army bravely fought until half of their officers and men were killed, wounded, captured, or dispersed.

Seeing that the situation was hopeless, the Italian defenders abandoned the gate and retreated to the nearby Monte Testaccio, the 100ft ceramic rubbish dump for the ancient port of Rome. There the defenders were silenced after a brief, futile attempt to stop the German advance into the city from this hilltop. Next many climbed the nearby Aventine Hill, the southernmost of the seven hills which marked the boundaries of ancient Rome, where they remained for the rest of the day.

Capponi, bypassing the Aventine, fell back to the Porta Capena, formerly a gate in the 4th-century BC defensive wall across from the broad expanse of the ancient Circus Maximus. With a great rumble and mechanical clanking, Wehrmacht soldiers drove a 62-ton Tiger I panzer along the cobblestone street from the pyramid toward the Colosseum. There, at the Porta Capena, the panzer blew up one of the few remaining mobile light tanks sent to stop the German onslaught.

Capponi watched this and could hear the screams of a trapped Italian tanker. Heedless of the flames, she rushed to pull the injured soldier from the burning wreck. Half-carrying, half-dragging him from the scene she made for the 4th-century AD Arch of Constantine, pursued by the German panzer which fired its 88mm gun into the piazza, barely missing the Colosseum. Capponi, still dragging the wounded soldier, went up the small hill to the ruins of the temple of Venus and Rome. Later she recalled:

We were at the temple of Venus and Rome, across from the Colosseum, when a new barrage of fire opened up, bullets and shells crisscrossing just above our heads. Somehow, I stumbled on, but I couldn’t help thinking that I was in the middle of a battle taking place in a museum, surrounded by all these precious monuments two thousand years old. They were shooting at the site where the ancient Romans had placed a temple to the goddess of beauty, of love and to the glory of Roman civilization

From there she headed down Via dell’Impero (now Via dei Fori Imperiali) to her apartment across from Trajan’s Column, Emperor Trajan’s monument to his Dacian war of the 1st century, a third of a mile away. With the help of the portiere (doorkeeper), she dragged the injured man up the steps to the apartment. Her mother, overjoyed that her daughter was still alive, welcomed the wounded man, a Sardinian grenadier called Vincenzo Carta, into her home where she nursed him for the next several weeks.

The Capponi apartment was soon crowded with other refugees and friends. Including the wounded soldier, five people and some weapons were now also hidden there. On the street below, Italian soldiers flooded past the apartment, discarding their uniforms as they went. Capponi and her mother emptied out her late father’s closet and dropped civilian clothes to the fleeing soldiers until they had no more left.

Meanwhile General Carboni contacted the Vatican to ask the Allied diplomats to request aircraft strikes, but neither Sir D’Arcy nor Tittmann were in radio contact with the Allies in Salerno. And in any event, the range was too great for Allied aircraft to provide close air support. Bombs fell, but not in defense of Rome. Mother Mary Saint Luke was an American nun in the society of the Holy Child. Born Jessica Lynch in Brooklyn, New York, she wrote under the pen name Jane Scrivener. She worked in the Vatican Information Bureau and after the war published her diary, Inside Rome with the Germans. She wrote of the ongoing battle:

At 1 o’clock, the siren again … Bombs seemed to fall close beside us. Then the whistle and thud of shells echoed over the city. It was unmistakable: they [the Germans] were using artillery and shelling the heights of Rome. Roman artillery answered from the Aventine, the Palatine, the Caelium, the Janiculum, and the Pincian [some of the hills of Rome]. A German shell screeched across Ponte Cavour and crashed into the Palazzo di Giustizia. Via Frattina, the Trinita, and Santa Maria della Pace were also hit. On the line of the Tiber, at San Gregorio, on the hills, Italian gunners were hard at work.

Young Tittmann, standing by a window, witnessed the artillery bombardment of the district around the Piazza di Spagna. He later wrote that there were great puffs of smoke and dust where the shells from light field pieces hit the houses, apparently doing little damage. In the Palazzo Orsini, fronting the Tiber but located on a side street a short distance from Rome’s central synagogue, another witness, Vittoria Colonna, the Duchess of Sermoneta wrote:

Throughout that long afternoon it was impossible to understand exactly what was going on. I went down the drive to the gates several times and peering through the bars could see columns of black smoke billowing upwards from the direction of San Paolo. Then soldiers – our own – began to straggle in disorder through the piazza [Piazza de Monte Savello] and I called out to them to ask what was happening. They answered that there was fighting everywhere – out in the campagna [countryside] and now in town – that the Germans had everything, guns, ammunition, hand grenades and that they themselves had nothing, what could they do against them? They were discouraged and exhausted.

The resistance could not last long. Although he only had 142 aircraft available, Field Marshal Kesselring threatened to send 700 aircraft to bomb the city if firing did not stop by 16:30. To make the point, an unidentified aircraft, likely German, dropped several bombs near the University of Rome.

By 16:00 the Italians were spent. General Count Giorgio Calvi di Bergolo, the commander of the Centauro II Division, agreed to a ceasefire. The armed citizenry melted away, hid their weapons, and went underground. Of the 597 Italians who died defending the city, 414 were soldiers and 183 were civilians, including 27 women. Nevertheless, General Carboni’s troops, supported by the civilians, had managed to hold down two German divisions of 49,000 front-line soldiers for a full day, troops Kesselring could have used at Salerno.