Given the murderous approach of the Germans to members of the Italian armed forces, their former allies, it was not perhaps surprising that they should have contempt for Italian civilians. The war was to turn increasingly bitter as it engulfed the civilian population. The treatment of the local population was to drive more and more Italians, both men and women, to fight with the partisans. A separate vicious guerrilla ‘Partisan war’ was to develop alongside the main conflict as the Allies fought their way up Italy.
For the troops on the ground this was a particularly unpleasant aspect of the war. For Canadian officer Farley Mowatt it was a disturbing experience to discover this:
One day late in November a friend invited me to accompany him on a visit to Third Brigade, which was then laboriously scrabbling its way northward through the mountains toward the headwaters of the Sangro River, where the Germans had anchored their so-called Bernhard Line.
As our jeep bounced over mountain trails, cratered, blown and generally savaged by the demolition experts of First Paratroop Division, we encountered what for me was a new and singularly ugly aspect of war… refugees making their painful way southward. Not before or since have I seen human beings who seemed so pitiable.
We came upon them in little clots and clusters trudging along the roadsides through a veil of sleet. They were clad in unidentiable scraps of black, rain-soaked clothing, and many walked barefoot in coagulating mud that was barely above the freezing point. Shapeless bundles slung over their shoulders, they plodded by with downcast eyes, mute and expressionless. We noticed that there were no men of young or middle years among them. We were soon to find out why.
At Third Brigade Headquarters a grim West Nova Scotia Highlander lieutenant undertook to guide us deeper into an increasingly desolate landscape, and it was he who explained about the refugees.
“Before he pulled back, Jerry rounded up all the men and boys fit to work and took them to work on the fortications along the Sangro. We’ve had a few escape into our lines. They tell us they get damn all to eat and are shot out of hand if they don’t work hard enough, or try to escape. They’re kept at it till they drop, then they’re just left lying in the rain and snow to live or die on their own.
‘But that’s not the half of it! Nearly every village on our front has been systematically destroyed. Jerry took everything the people had in the way of food and livestock, then turfed them out, burned what would burn and blew everything else to hell. In one village the bastards blew down the church with women and kids sheltering inside…
‘They herded most of the rest of the people off toward our lines, warning them they’d be machine-gunned if they turned back. As you can see, we can’t get wheeled transport up here except for jeeps, so they have to walk about ten miles to the rear, except for the sick or mothers with real young kids. We get them out on wheels somehow…
‘Keep it under your hats, but our boys are so fucking well brassed off about it, they aren’t taking any prisoners. Not those First Para bastards anyhow!”
Third Brigade had just occupied one of the demolished villages and we went forward to it on foot. The devastation was virtually total. Nothing remained except heaps of rubble but, despite the cold, the sickly stench of death proclaimed that not all the inhabitants had been able – or had been permitted – to escape. It was a revolting spectacle.
At the time, the Allied command appears to have been very little disturbed by this barbarism. It was said that the Germans were simply pursuing the “scorched-earth” policy they had developed in Russia, where everything which might conceivably have been of any use to the Russian Army was destroyed, and the civilian population – rendered homeless and destitute – was deliberately converted into a living obstacle in the path of the advancing Russian troops.
Presumably because our brass hats considered the scorched-earth policy a legitimate military tactic, the atrocities inicted on the Italian peasants in the Sangro mountains rated no more than a few casual and non-condemnatory references even in the official military histories written after the war.
Farley Mowat was an accomplished novelist, published in many countries, before he wrote his memoir of wartime experiences in 1979. See Farley Mowat: And No Birds Sang.