Italians suffer as the battles continue

"Ragged refugees from Cassino fleeing their blasted town on a road leading to Acquafondata, held by Allied troops.” Italy. Near Acquafondata, Italy. 8 February 1944

“Ragged refugees from Cassino fleeing their blasted town on a road leading to Acquafondata, held by Allied troops.” Italy. Near Acquafondata, Italy. 8 February 1944

The battles at Cassino and Anzio continued as both sides slugged it out. The ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ was now firmly established as a bloody and costly theatre. It was an expensive exercise for the Allies but at the very least it was pinning down large numbers of German troops, many of whom would otherwise be manning the ‘Atlantic Wall’.

For those caught in the middle, the Italian civilians, the suffering went on. Iris Origo was an American-Italian doing her best to help those affected. Her diary entry for today sums up the her thoughts and fears particularly well – but might well have been written by millions of other people across Europe who were in very similar circumstances. When would the actual battle reach them – and could they survive?

February 13th

Mr. Churchill declares that ‘while all battles, as they approach their decisive phase, are anxious’, he feels ‘no especial anxiety’ about the Anzio battle. I wish I could share his feelings.

It is odd how used one can become to uncertainty for the future, to a complete planlessness, even in one’s most private mind. What we shall do and be, and whether we shall, in a few months’ time, have any home or possessions, or indeed our lives, is so clearly dependent on events outside our own control as to be almost restful. For of course everyone else is in the same boat. Refugees from southern Italy bring tragic tales of the results of the ‘scorched earth’ policy, carried out by the Germans in their leisurely retreat.

Not only the small towns, but the farms and the crops have been destroyed —— in addition, of course, to the havoc already brought by bombing. There is no reason to think that central Italy will be spared a similar fate – the only uncertainty left to each of us being whether or not we shall happen to be on the road of the advancing or retreating armies.

Our friends the Caetani, whose home is at Ninfa, in the thick of the present battle, and the Senni family, who live on the road between Grottaferrata and Rome next to a large airport, are at any rate already in the thick of it. Those of us who live farther north are still uncertain of our fate.

The Gh.s, living on the coast thirty-seven miles from Livorno, will be obliged to leave their house (like all the rest of the civilian population) if there should be a landing on the Tuscan coast; meanwhile they already have German officers in the house, cannons in the garden, and troops in the village.

E., whose house is situated just above a tunnel between the main road and the railway from Florence to Bologna, is in an equally precarious position. So is everyone who happens to live near a railway (even in as small a town as Poggibonsi) or on a main road.

Nevertheless, practically all landowners have chosen to remain on their properties until they are actually bombed or turned out, together with their peasants, who have no other choice. Most of us have buried our jewels and papers, walled up some reserves of wheat, potatoes, oil and wine, and hidden some of our best furniture, books and clothes in the more remote‘ farm-houses, and now are sitting tight.

In our particular case, if ever we are forced to move, we shall have with us, in addition to our own two small children, the twenty-three refugee children, including a five-months-old baby —- no simple matter either to transport or feed.

I have spoken of the immediate hazards: the more remote ones are of course even greater. Though each one of us in his inmost heart believes that he and his family will survive (through some privilege which we certainly could not account for) certainly no one can make a guess as to what his future life will be.

Shall we have any money left, or work for a bare living? In what sort of a world will our children be brought up? What should we teach them to prepare them? Can any peace or order be restored again in this unhappy, impoverished and divided land?

And when those who, like myself, have relations and friends in other countries, are able to hear from them again, what news will we receive?

Three weeks ago – after four months of silence and anxiety – I received the news of my mother’s death in Switzerland, eighteen days after the event — in a letter from a stranger which had been smuggled across the frontier.

When letters begin again, how many other such pieces of news shall we all receive? Which of our close friends and relations are already dead, or will die before we meet them again? And, even among those who survive, what barriers of constraint and unfamiliarity will have arisen in these years — not only of physical separation, but of experience unshared, of differing feelings and opinions? What ties will survive that strain?

See Iris Origo: War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944

"Refugees on a mountain road in the Vallerotunda area, near Cassino, fleeing their town enveloped in battle, seeking safety behind the front.” Vallerotonda, Italy. 7 February 1944

“Refugees on a mountain road in the Vallerotunda area, near Cassino, fleeing their town enveloped in battle, seeking safety behind the front.” Vallerotonda, Italy. 7 February 1944

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