I’ll Be Home for Dinner, Mamma, non preoccuparti! - A Soldier’s Story of Survival
by Ray Culos
An air of excitement permeated the Gazzola household that spring day in April 1943. Olivio was about to take leave of his parents at the family home perched unobtrusively in the pastoral setting of San Martino di Lupari. Freshly bathed and smartly groomed, the 18-year old, with a swipe of the brow, turned from his room satisfied that he had left it neat and clean.
The hour-long bus ride to the police station in Padova was uneventful. It did, however, provide Olivio time to reflect. He sat impassively as he recalled that it had been his brother Narciso who suggested that he volunteer for the Carabinieri. “Unlike the regular infantrymen, the Carabinieri are served meals on proper plates. Besides, if you join the Alpini, they’ll work you hard; ti faranno un culo così,” he had proffered.
Olivio, clinching a towel around his waist, queued for his medical. Within minutes, the examining doctor declared him fit for service. Upon being welcomed into the ranks, the induction officer explained that the country’s need for Carabinieri replacements was both grave and urgent. As a result, the newly commissioned recruits would be escorted forthwith to the city’s train terminal for immediate transfer to the training centre in Rome. It seemed incredible to the young Carabiniere to find himself on board the old militia transport train. How could all of this happen in such a short space of time? After all, it had only been 14 hours since he had hugged his mother good-bye.
As the auxiliary train shunted onto the main line and headed south, Olivio’s thoughts again turned to his mother. He envisaged her waiting for him to arrive home for dinner. He would already have been an hour late. Being denied an opportunity to send her at least a brief message troubled him. So, he quickly penned a note. It conveyed his affection and attempted to dispel a mother’s anguish. Dinner would just have to wait, he sighed.
Arriving in Rome, it quickly became clear to Olivio and his colleagues that they had been shipped to a war zone. There were German forces and elements of Italy’s fascist and royal army combatants everywhere. As a constant reminder of the seriousness of Mussolini’s folly, Allied air forces strafed and bombed the capital city virtually unopposed. The degree of concern by Rome’s citizens for their own safety and the city’s irreplaceable treasures mounted daily.
For the next three months, Olivio received an abbreviated version of the training for newly commissioned policemen. As per regulations, he was detailed to an older, more experienced member of the elite police force.
During bombing raids, the Americans inflicted tremendous havoc and casualties. As the planes dropped their payloads during one attack, a great swell of beleaguered citizens ran frantically in all directions. Children screamed and the injured lay bloodied and dazed where they fell. Olivio and his partner led a group of desperate civilians through a maze of dead and wounded to an airraid shelter. Upon arriving, they discovered that two junior army officers and a general had already ensconced themselves within the safety of the shelter. Straightening up rather hurriedly, one of the officers issued a directive in a feigned authoritative voice, “Get those people down these stairs as quickly as possible,” he said while avoiding eye contact with the two exhausted policemen.
Three weeks after Mussolini had been taken into custody, Marshall Badoglio declared Rome an Open City. This put an end to the bombing of Italy’s fractured capital. Soon Rome was devoid of the Axis presence. With the absence of the Germans and fascists, units of the royal Italian army and members of the Carabinieri assumed responsibility for civil order and the administration of justice. Unfortunately, this situation proved short lived.
Subsequent to the fascist government’s capitulation and Italy’s provisional government’s declaration of war against Germany in September, the Germans and fascists re-entered Rome unopposed. The army regulars and the city’s Carabinieri lacked the capability to repulse the heavily armed insurgents.
The day the Axis troops reoccupied Rome, Olivio had been up since five o’clock in the morning doing assigned chores in the officers’ mess. As he looked up from his work station, he became witness to a historical event – the neutralization of the Carabinieri barracks by the Germans!
With guns drawn, the Germans entered the main floor hall in which Olivio and his instructor stood bewildered. “We put up our hands and immediately were taken away to join the entire complement of 12,000 police in the horse training facility,” he recalled.
The nightmare began within hours. The Germans decided to deport thousands of Italy’s national policemen to Germany. With 40 POWs to a freight car, the seemingly endless number of rolling stock commenced its slow but methodical exodus from Rome via the Brenner Pass to Hamburg.
The air in the overcrowded railway cars, locked from the outside, was hot, smelly, and filthy with coal dust. Only a two-inch opening allowed light and air in. There were no facilities. Only once inside Germany, did the train make regular stops. Food during this forced exodus was meager and unappetizing. The daily ration consisted mainly of a single slice of bread topped with sugar, and some water. Many of the weak prisoners never made it out of Italy. Throughout the ordeal, Olivio’s unflinching resolve induced him to carry on. “I survived because, I thought, if I didn’t return, my mother would die,” he recalled.
It was mid-afternoon when the procession of prisoner cars came to a permanent halt somewhere on the outskirts of Hamburg. The deportees were immediately assembled in the electrified barbed wire enclosure that served as the marshalling area. Roll call was taken in the Italian section of the camp where the prisoners were ordered to strip and shower. As they moved along, they were issued prison garb in exchange for their military clothing – the Carabinieri issue high boots were traded in for a pair of lousy wooden shoes.
The Lagerfuehrer appeared on a slightly elevated platform from which he politely, and insincerely, addressed the prisoners. Speaking in Italian, the commandant said, “We are very sorry that we haven’t had time to plan properly for your arrival. Your accommodations are not as yet complete. Regrettably, you will have to remain in this marshalling area for tonight.”
Before being dismissed, the prisoners were made an offer to volunteer for the Wehrmacht for service in Italy where the comforts of home would again be available to them. Most found the offer detestable. Although Olivio was approached by a few who intended to go along with the ploy, he steadfastly refused. The fate of those who accepted the deal, including one of Olivio’s acquaintances from Treviso, remains unknown. Speculation is that they met an ignominious end on the Russian front.
As the darkness of the early November night descended upon the camp, a thick layer of frost formed on the ground. Men, thousands of them, walked, marched, jogged or otherwise rubbed their bodies in an attempt to keep warm.
During the course of the next 20 months, Olivio would do slave labour in seven work camps in Germany, Austria and Hungary. “As the Americans advanced, bombing war factories in their wake, the Germans would move us. They could transfer a work force of 5,000 to a different location within 48 hours. There was little tolerance for error for those working on the assembly line. If any of us made a third mistake or were suspected of sabotage, it meant certain death. For the Germans, to kill a person or a mosquito was the same.”
In addition to working 12-hour days producing materiel for the German war effort, camp living conditions were deplorable. Prisoners slept on a straw floor, subsisted on a diet largely of turnips, and dealt with a myriad of health problems.
For a time, Olivio laboured in a camp producing crank shafts for mechanized vehicles located next to a town dubbed the Hospital City – an area the Americans avoided targeting. One Sunday morning in the fall of 1944, a squadron of American bombers passed over the camp at low altitude. As the low flying bombers came within range, German anti-aircraft fire erupted simultaneously from several nearby batteries. Four of the huge planes burst into flames over the expansive farmland that surrounded the camp. As the surviving crew members parachuted in rapid succession from the flaming hulks, they were met with murderous ground fire.
With the Germans fully occupied in the assault, a group of desperate prisoners rushed towards the dead airmen. As corpses hit the ground, they were grabbed and stripped of every possession. Before the guards could intercede, several bodies were mutilated and robbed by the Italians. In some cases fingers were cut off by the prisoners to retrieve rings.
Later in the day, the Lagerfuehrer, addressed the prisoners and ordered that those responsible for the mutilation step forward. No one moved for fear of reprisal. Several SS guards armed with machine guns stood at the ready. Every tenth man in the group of suspected perpetrators was to be executed. The officer began to count, eins, zwei, drei. Each time he shouted zehn, a burst of machine gun fire cut down another defenseless prisoner. Olivio escaped by the luck of the draw.
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Months later, in a work camp in Austria, some of the prisoners concocted a plan to escape. The escape route to Trieste, they figured, would parallel the railway line. The night before the breakout, the temperature dropped significantly, making snow-fall a real possibility. After discussing the situation with his compatriots, Olivio decided not to chance it. The following night the prisoners made their break. They had walked about 20 kilometres when snow began to fall. Their trail gleamed in the moonlight, making it easy for the guards to pursue them. They were apprehended in short order and returned to the camp, where they were stripped and beaten to death. “They hit the naked and defenseless men repeatedly on their heads and lower bodies with the butt end of their rifles until all had succumbed,” recalled Olivio.
In February 1945, Olivio found himself on snow removal detail in Hungary near the Russian front. Scavenging through a house vacated by people fleeing the Russian advance, he found a wooden statuette of St. Anthony, the patron saint of Padova. As the Russians overran the fortifications, the retreating Germans left their Italian charges behind. Olivio and his compatriots fell into the hands of the Russians, who planned to ship them to Russia. This prompted yet another escape plan. “Five of us fled to the German frontline in Austria. When we arrived, we told the Germans that the Russians were coming, and because they had mistreated us, we wanted to join the German army. It was odd that they allowed us to join them, and lucky for us that they didn’t shoot us on the spot.”
In April 1945, Olivio and his gang were on the run again, subsisting on wild berries and whatever else they could rummage. Stumbling upon a farm, they persuaded the Austrian farmer to let them work in exchange for food. This lasted for two weeks, until the local police surrounded the farmhouse. The Italians put up no resistance. It was back to the work camp in cuffs. But the detention was short lived. On yet another escape they would burst into houses, surprising the unsuspecting occupants. “We would tell them that we were not there to hurt anyone. We just needed food. We would grab what food we could and then high tail it out of the house and disappear into the night,” admitted Olivio.
During one such bold encounter, Olivio and friends froze in their tracks, when sitting at the table was an SS officer. They scampered out of that house at breakneck speed and into the shadows, bullets piercing the nocturnal air. That night they had no food. But they had come away unscathed!
As the escapees continued their route to freedom, they were accosted by eight Yugoslavian partisans. Some in the group were intent on press ganging them into Tito’s guerrilla army. After some discussion, the partisans decided to let the Italians go their own way.
The war in Europe ended as the bedraggled group of five approached the Italian border from Austria. En route, they witnessed homeward bound Germans discarding weapons at the side of the road. As they crossed the border into Italy, an American medical officer came to their aid. “He took us to a hotel where we were given a room with bath. It was our first hot bath in almost two years,” recalled Olivio. Their infested garb was destroyed and they were given a real meal. That night before sliding into a real bed, Olivio thanked St. Anthony for guiding him back to the patria.
The next morning scores of repatriated prisoners, some quite emaciated, boarded American army supply trucks headed south from Udine. They were going home! As the last truck in the 50-vehicle convoy neared Olivio, he made a sudden dash toward the rear. Clutching the sack containing his precious statuette, he flung himself at the tail gate. Excited comrades lurched forward and pulled him up to safety, as the transport truck gained speed.
As the convoy travelled through the towns, the streets became alive with well wishers. Men, women and children shouting words of encouragement tossed flowers, as the trucks rolled past. It was a glorious moment – a time of joy and tears.
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At the junction of Porta Santi Quaranta, Treviso, Olivio and a fellow passenger got off. Soon they were picked up by a lone American military vehicle. The Afro-American driver, who agreed to take them as far as Castelfranco, promptly produced a tin of cookies for them to eat. How nice it felt to be treated like a human being.
On foot again and just one kilometre from his home in San Martino, Olivio met up with a childhood school friend on his bike. Excited, the paesano peddled back to the village to inform the Gazzolas of Olivio’s return. Francesco and Angela, with arms outstretched, raced to embrace their son. That night, at the dinner table, a dream was realized.
Just before Olivio’s 21st birthday in November 1945, the entire family was reunited for the first time since the outbreak of hostilities. Signora Gazzola appeared somewhat entranced as she studied the faces of her five sons and two daughters. Joy, too, had returned.
Ray Culos is the author of Vancouver’s Society of Italians, in three volumes.
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