Germans turn against former Allies and Italian civilians

A Sherman tank loaded with infantry is cheered by local people as it passes through Salerno, 10 September 1943.

A Sherman tank loaded with infantry is cheered by local people as it passes through Salerno, 10 September 1943.

Operation Avalanche): On 10 September, British troops entered the town of Salerno. Infantry are seen moving through the streets.

Operation Avalanche): On 10 September, British troops entered the town of Salerno. Infantry are seen moving through the streets.

The Italian surrender had not come as a complete surprise to the Germans and they moved swiftly to neutralise the Italian armed forces wherever possible. These were awkward and uncertain days for the Italians and particularly for their armed forces. At best they were disarmed and humiliated, at worst some units were massacred at the hands of the Germans.

For the Italian population in general the Germans were now revealed as an army of occupation with a complete disregard for their former hosts, capable of the most brutal action against those who did not co-operate with them. It was to be a long and bitter episode in Italian history. The signs were there right from the start.

Don Whitehead was amongst a group of US journalists who distinguished themselves by operating as close as possible to the front lines:

Salerno , Italy , September 10

German soldiers rode through the streets of Salerno machine gunning civilians and Italian soldiers as well before they were finally driven out of the city this afternoon in the second day of bitter fighting on this northernmost sector of the Allied invasion front.

Against desperate opposition, the Allied troops slowly deepened their invasion bridgehead.

Weeping women, who said the Germans robbed them of all of their food two days ago, gave our troops the same sort of riotous welcome they received when they entered the towns of Sicily. Even while machine guns rattled at the edge of the city and shells burst nearby, people came from their houses to greet the troops.

The mayor, Fascist leaders and wealthier people fled when the Allies began the invasion. Those who greeted us were the poor people who had no means of transport or money with which to get out of the danger zone.

So they stayed in shelters while the Germans stripped their homes of silver, linen, food, wine, and anything else of value they could find. The people cheered the troops as their liberators and they were bitter toward their former Allies. Unarmed Italian soldiers wandered about the streets or gathered to talk with British Tommies and exchange souvenirs.

I entered the city this afternoon from the flagship of the American rear admiral commanding the naval task force …

[Don Whitehead accompanied U.S. members of the Allied Military Government, including Captain Augustine Riolo from New York, who began to establish a civilian administration]

The people lived in terror the last two days as the Germans looted homes and stores, dynamited water mains, stole all the food, and confiscated all ve- hicles and gasoline.

“The Germans machine gunned civilians walking down the streets.” Capt. Riolo said, “and they cleaned out the town. These people haven’t eaten for two days, and they are looking to us to take care of them.”

An Italian colonel said the situation in Naples was desperate with the Germans pillaging the city and threatening destruction of Italian troops whose ammunition is running low. The civil authority has broken down completely, and Naples has become a virtual battlefield.

With the armistice, Italian naval and army officers with a few minor exceptions appeared to be giving full co-operation to the Allies and willingly turning against their one-time ally.

In some cases it was reported the Germans were forcing Italian units to continue the fight, machine gunning them if they resisted. Capt. Riolo said, “They expected us to land in this area because of the heavy bombings and said they were ready to fight with us, but if they were ready to fight they could do nothing after the Germans took their guns and ammunition.” The senior Italian naval officer in charge of Salerno port conferred with the American vice admiral and gave him valuable information on the naval situation including charts of minefields along the coast.

See Don Whitehead: Beachhead Don: Reporting the War from the European Theater: 1942-1945.

(Operation Avalanche): During 10 - 11 September, the strength of German resistance steadily increased. A counter-attack cut the 9th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in Battipaglia off from from the main force and required new defences to be created. A gun crew of 267 Battery, 67 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery prepare a 17 pounder Pheasant anti-tank gun for action.

(Operation Avalanche): During 10 – 11 September, the strength of German resistance steadily increased. A counter-attack cut the 9th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in Battipaglia off from from the main force and required new defences to be created. A gun crew of 267 Battery, 67 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery prepare a 17 pounder Pheasant anti-tank gun for action.

A PIAT team from 9th Royal Fusiliers in action, 10 September 1943.

A PIAT team from 9th Royal Fusiliers in action, 10 September 1943.

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