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“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
Word was received through the underground that the Fascists were gathering a large force in the area equipped with machine guns and mortars, so Chappell moved his men into another valley and dug in on the crest of a mountain. Over a hundred Fascist militiamen took over the tiny village of Chison at the foot of the mountain, cutting off the partisans’ only source of food. Chappell felt it was time for action. At midnight twenty partisans surrounded the Fascist garrison, fired some bazooka rounds through a window, and called on the garrison to surrender. “A Fascist trooper came to the door to ask our terms,” Chappell said, “but when one of our men advanced to talk with him the Fascist opened up with a machine gun, so we slammed all the rest of our bazooka rounds into the house. I’m sure no one escaped from it. We estimated the next morning that we had killed eighty.”
Chappell knew the enemy would swarm like hornets in reprisal; and with added food supplies from Chison he and some thirty partisans retreated to the highest mountain of the region, the Col de Moi, three thousand feet above the Po Valley. They hid in some shepherd huts on the crest. All that day the Fascists tried to storm the mountain peak and were driven back by mortars and machine guns. During the afternoon the enemy rolled up cannon in an attempt to blast the huts off the mountain, but darkness fell before they got the range. That night the firing inexplicably ceased, and dawn revealed that the attackers had lost their nerve and pulled out, leaving their Fascist dead on the slopes. Later, rather than risk further casualties, they paid neutral civilians fifty lire for each body brought down for burial. Villagers counted over three hundred Fascists killed by Chappell’s small force. Partisan losses were two dead and two wounded.
With Chappell’s brigades harassing the enemy to the west and the VaI Cordovale brigade engaged in demolition activities to the north, the Germans were kept occupied all over the lower Alpine zone and were unable to concentrate on wiping out Mission Aztec. In February of 1945 Benucci decided to carry out his major sabotage assignment, the destruction of the important bridge across the Piave at San Felice. This bridge was midway between Belluno and Feltre, the two leading cities of the province, on the main highway, which carried most of the German supplies to the fighting front. It was a three-hundred-foot, four-span structure of reinforced concrete, with guard posts at either end. It stood only a mile from Belluno, where a thousand S.S. troops had recently been augmented by fifteen hundred members of the German aoth Infantry withdrawn from the combat zone for rest and reorganization. Another thousand troops were billeted at Feltre just south of the target. Benucci’s saboteurs would have to operate in the very heart of enemy country.
Benucci, with Sergeant Nick Gangelosi and a partisan engineer, crept to the edge of a wooded foothill a hundred and fifty yards from the target and made final plans for the demolition. They estimated that they would need forty men and four hundred pounds of plastic explosive to do the job. One two-hundredpound charge would blast the buttress end of the bridge where it met the land, the other would be placed at the top of the first arch. A squad of assassins were to knock out the guards at each end of the bridge, and an ambush party would cover the demolition workers while they were setting the charges.
On the night of February 12 they carried the explosives down from their mountain cache and hid them in a patch of woods. “We planned to start working on the bridge at 1 A.M. ,” Captain Benucci later told an O.S.S. interviewer, “at which time our intelligence had indicated we stood the best chance of avoiding detection by German traffic. About 11 P.M. Nick and I with thirty-five partisans took up a position overlooking the bridge at the point where we had hidden the explosives. All of the men were well armed, and in addition we had four bazookas in case armored vehicles or tanks came out to interfere.”
“At 12:30 A.M. I sent five of my most experienced assassins to take care of the southern guards. Twenty minutes later they flashed a signal to me which meant they had wiped the guards out. Thirty seconds later a flash from the north side told me that things were under control there, too. I gave the order, and our partisans picked up the explosives and sandbags and rushed onto the bridge. … Everyone worked fast, and in twenty minutes the last charges were laid, the last sandbags in place, and the whole thing wired together. I set the ten-minute time pencils, using a dozen to make sure. After a final check, I blew two blasts on my whistle and took off for the foothills.
“We all stopped about two hundred and fifty yards south of the bridge and waited for the explosion. It went up with a terrific roar. For a few seconds the span seemed to hang in the air, then collapsed into the river. When I saw that span go, I knew they couldn’t repair it, and it was still down when the war ended.”