The Boy in the War Zone

found in the field of debris. Such were the absurdities that surround battlefields. I wanted to see such battlefields up close and as a young boy I was excited to follow the army of curious bystanders. Next came a long hike to a meadow where a German fighter, a Messerschmitt Bf109, had crashed, shot down by an Allied fighter pilot. This time I was horrified by what I saw; something gruesome that I would never forget. The mangled body of the pilot was still strapped in his seat. The war had indeed gotten closer to me, but it was just the beginning.

My father knew what was coming because he listened to Radio London. It was illegal to tune in to the broadcasts originating in England, but for many Italians, especially anti-Fascists and disillusioned veterans, Radio London was the only reliable source of information. I clearly remember that the broadcast started with a series of booms – three short ones and a longer one – in an ominous sequence. In fact, they were the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In the Morse alphabet, they reproduced the letter V for victory in true Churchillian fashion. Radio London provided counter propaganda and encouraged opposition to the German occupation in Europe. It also delivered coded messages for the partisan units. The BBC Italian language broadcasts brought the voices of anti-Fascist expatriates and English personalities to Italians, among them the charismatic Colonel Harold Stevens, known to his clandestine listeners as Colonnello Buonasera.

His measured voice stood in sharp contrast to the shrill propaganda from the mouthpieces of the Nazi-Fascist alliance. Until recently, the colonel had been our enemy but now his voice inspired hope for the future. My father, for one, intently absorbed his discreet commentary. As a child, of course, I had been exposed to the Fascist propaganda that was imposed upon me as a “balilla” in the youth organization that was compulsory in my elementary school in Rome, aptly named after Il Duce’s nephew, Sandro Italico Mussolini. But after listening to my father and to snippets of information from Radio London, I realized that the war was going badly for Italy and that Fascism was a moral failure.

A huge battle had just stared along the Gothic Line, the last German defense line in Central Italy. It ran from La Spezia on the western coast all the way to Pesaro on the eastern coast. Unfortunately, it ran very close to us. The main thrust of the attack on the Gothic Line, Operation Olive, was launched by the Allies at the end of August 1944. The month of September saw heavy combat all along the line. General Mark Clark’s 5th Army led the fight in the central area while a mélange of Allied troops – from India, Canada, Britain, Poland, New Zealand and Greece – was pushing up the Adriatic coast throughout the month of September. Montefiore Conca, where we were ensconced, 12 miles southeast of Rimini, was smack in the middle of the Allied assault. By then, the Gothic Line was crumbling, as the 5th Army had taken the strategic Giogo Pass and pierced the heavily defended line of German commander General Albert Kesselring. The German Todt military engineering behemoth had erected a long string of bunkers, fortified shelters and blockhouses.

They posed a formidable line of defense. The frontal attack by the 5th Army on the Coriano ridge on September 13th led to the heaviest fighting of the Italian campaign. Scaling the walls and climbing up the hills under heavy fire called for a massive dose of heroism on the part of the American and Canadian units. The Eighth Army suffered an average of 145 KIAs (killed in Action) and 600 wounded every day.

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