- Historic Sites
“Our German Wehrmacht Is Being Stopped By A Shadow”
The furious speaker was Field Marshal Kesselring. The time was 1944. And the “shadow” was cast by Italian partisans and a handful of brave Americans from General Bill Donovan’s O.S.S.
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
Unable to contribute timely intelligence, Tompkins and his unit decided to organize the patriot forces in Rome into secret brigades to prevent completion of the German scorched-earth program. In order to ensure police co-operation, Tompkins had the wonderful audacity to issue a set of official orders to General Presti, head of the police forces in Rome, instructing him to maintain public discipline and prevent sabotage of buildings and utilities when the Germans departed. “The orders were written in official military form on paper headed ‘United States Office of Strategic Services ” Tompkins explained. “I then signed them ‘O.S.S. C.O. Rome Area’ and affixed a special rubber stamp which I had had prepared for just such an occasion.” When the Allies finally broke out of the beachhead at Anzio and the Germans evacuated Rome on June 6, 1944, all the major electric and telephone controls remained intact, and one of Rome’s radio stations, preserved from destruction by Presti’s police, broadcast the news of the Fifth Army’s triumphant entry—the first Allied soldiers to occupy an enemy capital.
Field Marshal Kesselring proclaimed October 8-14, 1944, as a special week, to be observed by all his troops in German-occupied Italy. “And what will be the nature of this week, Herr Marshal?” a staff general inquired.
“It will be known as Antipartisan Week,” Kesselring growled, “and we will observe it by exterminating this guerrilla resistance once and for all. Our German Wehrmacht is being stopped by a shadow.”
The shadow lay dark across the path of every retreating division as the Nazis moved northward through Italy after the evacuation of Rome. Partisans haunted the towns and hamlets the Germans passed, poisoning their water, putting their trucks out of commission with emery dust concealed in the bearings. They struck silently in Nazi bivouacs at night—the pad of feet, the gasp of a sentry garroted at his post. Land mines exploded along the line of march, snipers fired from ledges and faded away like phantoms, a key highway bridge crumbled before the retreating armies in a cloud of smoke and flying chunks of concrete. Kesselring’s own communication lines, repaired one day, were found cut in a dozen places the next. At the very moment that the marshal was announcing Antipartisan Week to his division commanders, a mysterious blast in the power plant plunged the room into darkness, and Kesselring stamped back to his quarters with his speech unfinished.
The proud German army found itself on the defensive, fighting a force without substance. Sentries were ordered to walk in pairs, guards were doubled and redoubled. It was safer to risk the Allied Air Force in the daytime than to travel through partisan-held country at night. Whole battalions were withdrawn from combat zones to hunt the elusive resistance bands. One company of picked troops scoured the hills for a week in search of a parachuted O.S.S. radio team and returned empty-handed with a third of its complement wounded or missing. Furious, Kesselring proclaimed that henceforth any Allied agent caught working with the partisans, in uniform or not, would be shot on sight.
Threats and savage reprisals failed to cow the shadow army. Members of the resistance taken prisoner by the Nazi S.S. were castrated or had their eyes gouged out. Others were impaled on steel meat-hooks and hanged in village squares, a popular form of S.S. torture. The Germans would tie a prisoner’s hands, lift him off the ground, then lower him so that the two meat-hook points would penetrate the soft underside of his jaw, just inside the jawbone; and all the inhabitants of the village would be routed out at bayonet-point to watch his agonized writhings.
Still the partisans fought on, growing bolder and more numerous as Kesselring’s forces reached North Italy, where anti-Fascist, as well as anti-German, sentiment was strongest. Many former Italian army officers joined the civilian resistance groups and disclosed to them the formal organization of military units.
When the general German retreat to the Gothic Line—above Florence—was at its height, in the summer and fall of 1944, several major partisan groups deep inside northern Italy, supported by O.S.S. weapons and communication facilities, engaged in open combat with the Nazis. One of the principal uprisings was in the VaI d’Ossola, where a large resistance group led by O.S.S. agent “Como” attacked German garrisons along Lake Maggiore, hoping to clear the enemy from a stretch of the Swiss-Italian frontier. Marshal Kesselring committed two of his divisions to eliminate the Val d’Ossola bands, and they were bivouacked in the lakeside resort town of Cannobia. The partisans notified the O.S.S. in Bern, Switzerland, that they could capture the town if they were supported by Allied air attacks on certain specified targets, including enemy barracks and boats being used as transports. Bern passed the word to Caserta, and on September 25 the Tactical Air Force bombed so accurately that the partisans quickly took Cannobia.