The Italian Partisan Crisis Winter 1944

Flag of the National Liberation Committee and some members of the Italian resistance in Ossola, 1944.

On the night of 3 November, an RAF Liberator of 148 Squadron, containing three agents and a number of supply canisters, left Brindisi and flew north towards the Apennines. Two of the agents were Italians recruited by No 1 Special Force, SOE, but the third was a young but already highly decorated soldier and SOE operative, twenty-four-year-old Major John Barton, DSO, MC.

Major Bernard James (John) Barton, DSO + Bar, MC

John Barton’s task – codenamed ‘Cisco/Red’ – was either to capture or assassinate a senior German general,af whose headquarters was reportedly near Mirandola, a town in the central plains a few miles south of the River Po. As arranged, fires had been lit for them at the drop zone. Parachuting from 3,000 feet, all three landed safely at around 10 p.m., as did all but one of the canisters. On the ground, John was met by Major Wilcockson, a fellow SOE agent, and a number of partisans, and taken to a safe house in the tiny mountain village of Gova, some forty miles west of Bologna.

Once there, the two Italians left on their mission to Bologna, while Wilcockson and the partisan commanders examined the contents of the supply drop. Although pleased with the weapons and ammunition, Wilcockson was exasperated by the absence of boots and clothing, especially since the equipment had been padded by hundreds of useless sandbags. Most of the partisans in his area had few clothes other than those they had left home with. Some had items of British uniforms, but with a long month of heavy rain and rapidly falling temperatures, they were all desperately short of heavy clothing, boots and great coats. Living rough in barns and caves in the freezing cold mountains was an utterly miserable and sometimes life-threatening existence.

The following day, John was led to a neighbouring mission, that of another agent, Major Johnstone. There he waited several days for a guide, but since he could speak neither German nor Italian, he also took the opportunity to form a small squad of men to accompany him on his mission – an ex-POW as an interpreter, a former Italian paratrooper, and a German-Italian who assured him he could pass as a German.

The day they left, an Allied drop was made over Johnstone’s area. ‘It was pathetic!’ wrote John. The containers had been dropped from too great a height, had been spread over a vast area – some falling into German hands – and half the parachutes had not opened, so that much of the ammunition was ruined. ‘Wilcockson said he received some ancient Italian rifles from this drop,’ wrote John, ‘and that they were far more dangerous to the firers than to the person fired at.’

After three days’ walk, John Barton and his squad reached the edge of the mountains overlooking Reggio Emilia. They were now in a German-Fascist controlled area and had to continue at night. The others wanted John to ditch his uniform, but incredibly, he had been ordered to keep it on throughout his mission and so refused to change into civvies. This, it seems, was too much for the German-Italian, who promptly left them.

Using borrowed bicycles, they headed down from the mountains towards the centre of Reggio. John had noticed there was hardly any traffic on the road, and what there was had been very old and very noisy and easy to avoid, particularly as it was night-time. Once in Reggio itself, they were stopped by a German bicycle patrol, but they simply pedalled away and down a side road before the soldiers could unsling their rifles and open fire.

Earlier in the day, the Allies had attempted to bomb the railway station, missed completely and had destroyed a number of houses round about. In the ruins of one of these John and his squad found an ideal hide-out for a few days. From there, John was also able to observe the station. A train that was unloading goods, he learned, could travel no more than ten miles due to destroyed bridges on the route. He also made contact with the local GAP commandant, and arranged for a guide to take them to Modena, the next port of call on their journey.

They left on bicycles during the evening three days later, although now without the Italian paratrooper. Having changed into civvies, he had gone to see a friend and had been stopped by a patrol. His papers had been in order but he had been caught carrying a pistol. ‘Foolish man!’ noted John. ‘We did not see him again.’

Once more travelling by the half light of the moon, they cycled to Modena, passing a long two-mile horse-drawn German column. No one paid them the slightest attention. Nor did they in Modena. Rather, the biggest danger they had so far faced came from Allied bombing and strafing of both the towns and roads on which they travelled. A few days later, and still on their bicycles, John, along with the former POW and their latest guide, headed north towards Mandola. ‘Unfortunately,’ reported John, ‘the partisans had ambushed a small party of Germans on the road we had hoped to use and the Germans were very busy burning houses, searching everywhere and shooting people. Seventy-five houses were burned to the ground.’

Taking a detour, they followed the route of the River Secchio until they reached Concordia, a few miles from Mirandola. There, local partisans advised them to head east, towards Ferrara. After several rides through the night, they reached the Ferrara area and made contact with the partisan commandant. Eager to help, he produced a number of German prisoners and Russian deserters, whom John interrogated in turn. None, however, could tell him where the elusive general was based.

Despite this, John was determined not to give up, even though he had now spent nearly a month in the field, and despite the extremely tense and dangerous situation in which he found himself. ‘The whole district was being continually searched and pillaged,’ he wrote, ‘and the few partisans had a very thin time living in their holes. Many were captured and shot immediately.’ He had noticed that everywhere there was an atmosphere of fear and distrust. Fascist militia and Blackshirts were, he reported, quite ruthless, burning houses and shooting suspects without blinking. Torture was also ‘quite normal’. On the other hand, as Bruno Vailati had observed in the Romagna Mountains, Germans took no notice of these practices unless one of their own troops was killed, at which point they would respond with frightening and ruthless efficiency. Nor, as far as he could tell, was being a Fascist a safeguard against German pillaging. ‘As yet,’ he noted, ‘the Germans have not completely stripped the countryside, but are doing it slowly and systematically.’ Most Italians, he observed, were desperately short of food and basic goods, and pathetically poor. ‘Everywhere,’ he added, ‘the question is, “When are the Allies coming? We cannot hold out much longer!” ’

John Barton’s mission had coincided with a time of crisis for the partisans. Throughout the summer, when the days had been long, hot and dry, their strength had risen and supplies from the Allies had been plentiful. Victory, it was widely expected, was just around the corner. It was why the partisans in the Apuans had acted with such defiant arrogance towards the 16th Waffen-SS before the massacre at Sant’ Anna; it was why Lupo had remained so confident on Monte Sole.

But that victory had not come, and now they faced a long, bitter winter. Living in caves and barns was tough but bearable when the nights were warm and dry, and when there was fruit on the trees and a good harvest being collected. Surviving in freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow, and with food more scarce than ever, was a different matter altogether. It was a gloomy prospect and one that was made worse by the lessening of supplies, which had suffered as a result of the pinch imposed on the Mediterranean Command, and also because of the weather. Six hundred tons of supplies had been due to be dropped during October, but only seventy-three tons had actually been delivered. It was why partisan commanders and their SOE and OSS liaison officers were so upset when drops were inaccurate or half empty and filled with sand bags rather than something useful.

The onset of winter and the shortage of supplies had also come at a time of increased anti-partisan measures by General Wolff. Kesselring had been alarmed by even greater increases of partisan activity throughout September. ‘Supply traffic severely handicapped,’ he wrote, ‘and acts of sabotage become more and more frequent. This pest must be countered.’ In the Alps, several partisan bands had even experimented in local self-government by declaring whole areas to be independent republics, such as the Republic of Domdossola in the Val d’Ossola, which was declared on 26 September.

This was intolerable to Kesselring and four days later he instructed Wolff to carry out an ‘Anti-partisan Week’ using not only all SS police available but also any tactical reserves, supply and rear-echelon troops, Italian militia and any other forces he could lay his hands on. ‘The Anti-partisan Week,’ Kesselring told Wolff, ‘must make finally clear to the partisan bands the extent of our power, and the fight against these bands must be carried out with the utmost severity.’

Wolff’s operations lasted until the end of the month, and by the end of them the short-lived Republic of Domdossola had been crushed, 1,539 partisans were dead, 1,248 had been taken prisoner, a further 1,973 suspects had been captured, and 2,012 had been rounded up for Organisation Todt. For the Alpine partisans, these operations had been a major setback.

The CLNAI were also keenly aware of the potential dangers that now faced them, and strongly believed that even greater unity was the key to survival. The problem was that the struggle between the political factions was threatening to undermine this goal. General Cadorna, for example, having been given no firm remit from the Allies and little authority from the CLNAI, had found his hands horribly tied in his role as military advisor to the Corps of Volunteers of Freedom and consequently he achieved little. Conscious of this, Ferruccio Parri and Leo Valiani of the CLNAI had met the head of SOE Italy, Colonel Roseberry, in Lugano in Switzerland at the end of October. Roseberry pressed for the Italians to define more clearly Cadorna’s role and to place him in charge of a unified military command in the north – one that included command of all the Garibaldi brigades as well as the Green Flame and non-political bands. The CLNAI, in turn, demanded political recognition from the Allies. The result of the meeting was SOE’s recommendation to the Allies that a meeting be held between them and the CLNAI in Rome.

Before the CLNAI delegation could reach Rome, however, a further blow befell the partisans, and ironically, it came from none other than Alexander, one of their champions. Deeply concerned about the potential plight of the resistance movement, he now saw no point in them wasting their lives until the next major offensive was launched, when he hoped they would once more be able to give direct help to the Allied forces.

With this in mind, on 13 November, he made a radio proclamation on Italia Combatte to all the partisans of the north, asking them to lay down their arms, to conserve ammunition, and to wait for further instructions. However well intentioned Alexander’s proclamation may have been, it was greeted with utter despair by the partisans. Outrage filled the columns of southern newspapers. The Action Party paper, Italia Libera, charged that a return to underground resistance was not only ‘morally wrong but practically impossible’, and made the point that the fight against the Nazi-Fascists was not ‘a summer sport that can be called off at a moment’s notice’.

The announcement coincided with a more placatory approach from General Wolff, who had always been cautious about applying ‘extreme measures’. Indeed, despite ‘Anti-partisan Week’, Wolff had urged Mussolini to declare an amnesty to partisans, and in October claimed to have brought as many as 80,000 partisans back to the cities and into regular occupations. ‘I had obtained the assurances of the fanatical Fascist police of Pavolini,’ he said, ‘that these people, if they returned to their homes and took up normal lives again, would not be bothered by members of the Fascist Police.’ Indeed, while battles continued against the partisans, there were noticeably fewer mass executions of the kind that had blighted the summer, and as part of his efforts not to antagonise the majority of the pro-partisan population further, the misguided reports of Black Brigade actions in the Republican press were also dropped. On the other hand, the Fascist press was quick to report the ‘callousness’ of the Allies for ‘cynically leaving the partisans to their fate’.308

Wolff’s figures were a gross exaggeration, but his approach, with the winter weather on his side, was definitely paying off. Alex’s statement had undoubtedly been a terrible own-goal. In truth, it had not been properly thought through, as General Harding later admitted. Nor had they referred the matter to SOE or OSS, or even the Italian government, before making the statement. It was uncharacteristic of Alexander who was normally so assured in matters of diplomacy, and in fact, came at a time when he and others in Italy were doing as much as they possibly could to safeguard the partisan movement in Italy.

Indeed, after Colonel Roseberry’s encounter with Parri and Valiani in Lugano, Alex had written a detailed report outlining the urgent need to give increased support to the partisans and to give greater recognition to the CLNAI. This forced a major and long overdue re-evaluation at AFHQ of their attitudes towards the Italian resistance and its part in the future of the north. At the same time, back in London, Lord Selborne, the Minister for Economic Welfare, had also taken up the cause of the Italian resistance, based on information received from both Alexander and No 1 Special Force. Writing to Churchill, he pointed out that public opinion was behind them – as Kesselring was also keenly aware – and that future Allied relations with the Italians in the north would be affected by the support they gave the partisans now. Winter would be hard for them. Without urgent supplies, the partisans and their existing SOE and OSS missions would face collapse and be exposed to terrible reprisals. At the same time, the Allies in Italy would be depriving themselves of a valuable weapon. ‘When you have called a Maquis out into open warfare,’ he told the Prime Minister, ‘it is not fair to let it drop like a hot potato. These men have burned their boats and have no retreat.’

Churchill agreed and demanded the situation be rectified. So too did General McNarney, Jumbo Wilson’s American deputy, so that despite Air Marshal Slessor’s belief that supply dropping in Italy was a wasted effort, an increase in supply was agreed upon. The US 51st Troop Carrier Wing was even diverted from operations in the Balkans, and as a result there was an increase in the amount of supplies airlifted.

Unwittingly, however, Alexander’s proclamation of 13 November helped the Allies’ negotiating hand when the CLNAI delegation arrived clandestinely in the south in the third week of November. Short of funds and supplies, having suffered from recent rastrellamenti, and with morale wavering, the CLNAI were desperate to improve their lot and so were now ready to make concessions to the Allies – concessions that several months before, during the height of their summer successes, they would never have considered. And as Alfredo Pizzoni, the chairman of the CLNAI, admitted to General Wilson, there were, they believed, at the end of November, only around 90,000 partisans, of whom just over half were in the towns and cities. Of these, about 40 per cent were armed, whilst in the mountains, they reckoned only a meagre 8 per cent carried weapons.

In addition to Pizzoni – a Milanese banker and one of the few non-party members of the movement – the delegation consisted of Ferruccio Parri of the Action Party, and Gian Carlo Pajetta, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and the second most senior Communist within the CLNAI after Luigi Longo. What they wanted was official recognition as the agent of the Italian government in the occupied north, and to gain the acceptance of the CVL as a regular armed force to be integrated into the Italian Army, which would then avoid the demobilisation of partisan bands once the Allies arrived.

Both Macmillan and Alexander were now anxious to create a tripartite agreement between the CLNAI, the Supreme Allied Commander and the Bonomi government. The main concern for the Allies was the establishment of the Allied Military Government in liberated areas as the war was finally drawing to a close. The final stages of the campaign might move so fast that there would be ‘empty spaces’ occupied by local CLNs before the AMG could get there. How could the Allies be sure these partisan-led and politically varying committees would lay down arms and hand over power to AMG? The experience of the civil war that had so quickly evolved in Greece had burnt Allied – or rather, British – fingers. Even Alex, who was also keen to draw up an agreement with the CLNAI as soon as possible, had concerns about a repetition of the Greek situation. ‘The operations of SOE [and OSS] in arming nearly 100,000 so-called patriots,‘he wrote, ‘will produce the same revolutionary situation unless we devise a system for, immediately on the liberation of the territory, taking them in to either our or the Italian Army.’310

There was a major difference, however, between Italy and Greece and that was that the Communists in Italy, unlike EAM/ELASag in Greece, had made it their policy to do everything in their power to avoid civil war once the Nazis and Fascists had been driven out of Italy. The post-Fascist revolution in Italy was to be achieved by the creation of a parliamentary democratic republic, which, they hoped, would be led by the Communists as supported by a majority of the voting population. Their task, during these months of resistance, was to build up a consensus of support. Thus it was that despite being the most radical of the major non-Fascist political parties, they were also the most willing to compromise, just as they had been back in the spring over the monarchy issue.

It was at this moment that a different kind of crisis struck the Italian government in the south. For several months, the parties forming the CLN – which made up the cabinet – had been beginning to split apart. Led by the socialists, the left was demanding social change, which included industrial and agrarian reform, the establishment of a socialist republic, and the purge of all former Fascists from public life. This latter change was already in hand, but it was the manner and degree in which this was being carried out that was causing a divergence of views; after all, every civil servant had had to hold a Fascist Party tessera to keep his job, but this did not mean they had been die-hard Fascists. Bonomi and the conservatives felt some leeway was needed and that the elimination of almost the entire governing class would not serve Italy well. Nor were they keen to prosecute Marshal Badoglio. Count Sforza, as High Commissioner for Sanctions Against Fascism, strongly disagreed, however, and demanded a complete purge, as did the other leftist members of the cabinet.

The second major point of conflict was over the position of the CLN. The six-party coalition had been formed by the Central CLN in Rome, but Bonomi now believed that since the government, rather than AMG, ran most of the liberated country, he, as prime minister, represented the state, and was therefore responsible to the head of state – that is, the King and Prince Umberto – not the CLN. In this, he had the support of the Liberals but not the Actionists, Socialists or Communists, who believed it was the CLN, not the King, who represented the people, and were increasingly suspicious that Bonomi wanted to restore a pre-Fascist constitutional monarchy to which they had no intention of returning.

These issues festered and the split in differences widened, until on 25 November Bonomi tendered his resignation to Prince Umberto, having become exasperated with what he saw as repeated efforts of the extreme left to interfere and gain greater influence. The CLN were then forced to find a way of re-establishing a new cabinet. The Liberals conceded that it should have the authority of the CLN, and so Bonomi acquiesced on the matter, but over other matters compromises clearly needed to be made. With Count Sforza as the new chairman of the CLN, they began to try and form a new cabinet. Bonomi, it was hoped, would continue as prime minister, with Sforza as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Once again, however, the British objected to such an appointment, and although not a veto, it was couched in such a way that it could be interpreted as such, not only by the Italians, but also by the Americans.

An international storm followed. The British insisted they had merely been expressing an opinion, but the damage was done. With Britain’s reserves of manpower falling sharply and with America’s growth accelerating, this episode, on the surface so unimportant, demonstrated how much British influence was on the decline. America was now even more the senior partner. If Britain appeared to step out of line, it could no longer expect any closing of the ranks. In America there was stinging criticism, not just of the British stance in Italy, but also about its intervention in Greece. ‘The Greek news is very bad,’ noted Harold Macmillan wistfully in his diary at the beginning of 7 December, ‘and so is the Italian. Greece has a revolution, and Italy is without a government. And in both cases we have drifted apart from our American ally.’311 As luck would have it, both he and Alexander were in London at the time. Had Macmillan, especially, been in Italy, the whole matter might well have been resolved more easily.

And yet the whole debacle had, in many ways, a positive outcome. Bonomi agreed to accept the CLN’s de facto position, but insisted on pledging allegiance to Prince Umberto as the ‘Lieutenant General of the Realm’. The purge issue also ended in victory for Bonomi and the conservatives. Sforza was offered the job of ambassador in Washington but turned it down; since he was affiliated to the Actionists, however, he remained, like the party, outside the cabinet, as did the Socialists. Bonomi’s new four-party cabinet, sworn in on 12 December, strengthened Bonomi’s position but also that of the Communists and the Christian Democrats. The crisis was over.

While this fiasco was carrying on, a bi-partite agreement had been drawn up between the Allies and the CLNAI, with Macmillan hoping the Italian government could be brought in at a later date once the dust had settled. On the Allies’ part, they agreed to provide 160 million lire a month during the German occupation. Supplies would also be increased, and the CLNAI would be consulted on ‘all matters relating to armed resistance, anti-scorch, and the maintenance of order’.312 The Allies also agreed to recognise the CVL as the military arm of the CLNAI, and although Cadorna was to be appointed the official military commander of the Italian resistance, the partisans were to come under overall command of General Alexander and were to obey his instructions without question. When the war finally came to an end, the CLNAI was to maintain law and order only until the Allied Military Government could be established. Power would then be passed in turn to the established Italian government.

For the CLNAI – and especially the Action and Communist parties – these were harsh terms, but bruised and depleted as they were, and desperately short of cash, they were in no position to haggle. Alexander had them over a barrel and was determined to exert as much control as possible. The agreement was signed on 7 December, and on 26 December was reaffirmed by Bonomi’s government. However humiliating this may have been for the leadership of the CLNAI, it was undoubtedly in the best interests of the future of the Allied campaign and of post-war Italy – and consequently in the best interests of the majority of Italians.

Meanwhile, Major John Barton was continuing his efforts to locate his elusive German general. ‘We stayed at the house of a Fascist Captain of Militia,’ he reported, ‘who was a good Fascist by day and an even better partisan by night.’ Running trucks of supplies between Bordeno and Verona, he carried arms one way for the partisans and for the Germans the other.

It was the captain who told John that his target was most likely in the Verona-Brescia area, much further to the north of the Po, and he offered to go to Verona to try and find out. The day after he left, John and his translator spotted three trucks of Fascist troops rumbling down the road. Deciding to play safe, they jumped out of windows at the back of the house and hid amongst the sugar beet in the field outside. It was as well that they did, because the Fascists stopped and searched the house. ‘There was obviously a spy at work,’ noted John, ‘for the Fascists went to all the partisans’ houses, found weapons, explosives etc, and took them all prisoner.’ For some reason, however, the now disappeared GNR captain did not appear to be at the top of his list of suspects.

The rastrellamento went on for several days, during which time John and his translator lived in fields and begged for food from women and children. This experience clearly proved too much for his former POW side-kick, who one day walked out on him. ‘When things cooled down again,’ noted John, ‘I found that all my partisan contacts had been taken or shot.’ He hung around the area for a further ten days, but there was no sign of the captain, most of the civilians in the area had begun to suspect him, rather than the GNR captain, of being a German spy, and since he was now lousy and troubled by scabies, he decided to head back to base.

Having made his way back to the Modena area, he made contact with the partisans there, and asked them to send messages to Milan, Verona, and Venice asking for information on the whereabouts of the German general. Accompanied by an American air gunner who had bailed out a few days before, he headed back to the mountains, where he found Major Wilcockson still cursing the lack of clothing and medical supplies. After waiting a few days at Gova, John was guided south across Allied lines and back to safety. He had been away two months, and in that time had achieved nothing, but had learned much about both sides in German-occupied Italy, and about the conditions and fears in which the partisans and civilians alike lived. ‘Everyone is terribly frightened of the Air Force,’ he noted, ‘the civilian population most of all.’ He had spent Christmas Day with a man whose wife and child had been killed by a bomb falling in his back yard. ‘To me it was just wanton jettisoning of bombs from aircraft returning home,’ he wrote; ‘to the civilians it is a very real terror.’

He had also discovered a population torn apart by hunger, fear and mistrust. John had found the experience testing enough – both physically and mentally – yet he was a professional soldier, and despite the dangers, was able to return to a safer world at his mission’s end – a world in which he would find clean clothes, a decent bed, food, drink and friends whom he trusted implicitly.

But in the towns and cities of the plains, and up in the mountains to the south, partisans were weakening by the day through lack of food and clothing, freezing in the appalling winter conditions and hunted down like dogs. Morale was low, disillusionment great, and the future very uncertain indeed.

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