Italian anti fascist partisans had been playing an increasingly important role in the war, ever since Italy had deposed Mussolini and then switched sides in 1943. They fought a bitter guerrilla war against the occupying Germans, despite many cruel reprisals against the civilian population. By the spring of 1945, supplied with arms by the Allies, they had grown to become a very significant force.
On the 25th April the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (Committee of National Liberation, or CLN) began an open insurrection in the remaining occupied area of northern Italy. The Germans surrendered in Turin and Milan, and later in Genoa. Some German units were now allowed to make their way north to Switzerland and Austria, but they were not permitted to take their Italian collaborators with them.
Elsewhere there were reprisals as the Germans were hunted down. New Zealand Intelligence officer Geoffrey Cox recounts one episode from his dealings with Italian partisans during this period:
At the new area a group of partisans with red scarves were waiting. They had been stopped by our own troops down by the river bank as suspicious characters. Enthusiastically (they were not yet disillusioned) they explained that they wanted to help.
They had been told that there were several Germans hiding in this area. One, they said, was patently an officer. Gold braid had been seen on his shoulders. Could they not carry on with the search?
It took only five minutes to get their papers checked and to set them loose. At the same time we put part of the Headquarters Defence Platoon out on the same quest. ‘Any prisoners you can get will be valuable,’ I told the bearded partisan leader. He grinned. ‘Si, si. Prigionieri,’ he said.
Half an hour later there were shots down by the river bank. An hour later the partisans were back. They had found the Germans, three of them. One was certainly an officer. Where was he? Ah, he had tried to escape. A very foolish fellow. ‘Molto stupido, molto stupido.’ But here were his documents. And they handed over a blood-stained bundle.
I opened the top pay-book. Hauptmann. So he was an officer all right. An anti-tank gunner. Two passport photographs fell out of the book. The face on them might well have come from a stock propaganda shot of the stern S.S. man. Here were those deep-set eyes, that hard thin mouth, that cheek crossed with duelling scars, that sleek yellow hair, that square German head of the ideal Nazi type.
Every detail in the book bore out the picture. The man had been in the S.S. from the early days of Hitlerism; his list of decorations filled a whole page at the back. ‘Medal for the Einmarsch into Austria: Medal for the Einmarsch into Czechoslovakia: Medal for the Polish campaign: Iron Cross Second Class in France. Served with the infantry in Russia: Transferred to the anti-tank gunners at the end of 1943: Iron Cross First Class in the Crimea for destroying two ‘feindlicher Panzer Kampfwagen’.
The medal of the Iron Cross, its ribbon stained crimson brown above its red, black and white, lay amongst the papers. The Hauptmann’s book was full of photographs of Storm Troops and of soldiers, of sisters in white blouses and dark skirts, of a heavy-built father with close-cropped hair, of other young officers with the same relentless faces.
This was the type Hitler had loosed on Europe, brave, desperate, efficient. And now he had come to his end in an Italian field, shot down by an Italian farmer’s boy with a Sten gun, shot in the back, I learned later, as he crouched in hiding.
It was on the 27th April that a column of German trucks made their way north to Switzerland. Amongst the group was Benito Mussolini, thinly disguised in a German army helmet, and his mistress, intending to take a plane to Spain. The group was checked by communists of the 52nd Garibaldi Partisan Brigade in the village of Dongo on Lake Como – and Mussolini was immediately recognised by Urbano Lazzaro, the political officer. That evening Radio Milano announced:
The head of this association of delinquents, Mussolini, while yellow with rancour and fear and trying to cross the Swiss frontier, has been arrested. He must be handed over to a tribunal of the people so it can judge him quickly. We want this, even though we think an execution platoon is too much of an honour for this man. He would deserve to be killed like a mangy dog.
There are differing accounts of what happened next but within 24 hours Mussolini had been summarily executed by the partisans. Winston Churchill was to express shock when he saw the subsequent photographs – but later wrote “at least the world was spared an Italian Nuremberg”.