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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
While five hundred German S.S. men with police dogs were scouring the countryside in search of the saboteurs, Benucci arranged for another meeting with Chappell. Both he and Chappell had been told at O.S.S. training school that officers in the field should never risk a rendezvous, but they were anxious to coordinate their zone-wide operations. With his two sergeants and three leading partisans Benucci arrived at Chappell’s secret command post near the town of San Antonio and established his own headquarters in a small house about a thousand yards away. He and Chappell talked until four in the morning, and then Benucci ordered the sergeants and the three partisans back to their temporary quarters to send out the morning radio messages, while he remained to enjoy a turkey that one of Chappell’s contacts in San Antonio had furnished. “The turkey was cooking and we were shooting the breeze over some tea at about seven in the morning,” Benucci’s account continued, “when a young girl came running into our hut shouting: ‘Tedeschi, Tedeschi [Germans], San Antonio!’ ”
“We weren’t particularly alarmed at first, for we thought it was just a morning patrol, but we woke up Chappell’s men and they began to bury the vital equipment, while I took a B.A.R. [Browning Automatic Rifle] and went outside with Chappell.” From a small knoll they spotted some Germans moving cautiously along a ridge to the west and other groups working downhill toward them from the north and east. “Immediately we knew that we had been surrounded. We decided to make a break for it by following a creek south, the one direction that didn’t seem to be covered, and our only hope of breaking out of the trap.”
“We all took off at a run and started down the stream. The water was ice cold and knee-deep, which made it hard going. We managed to go about eight hundred yards before the Germans opened up on us with machine guns and automatic weapons from the ridges on either side and from our rear.” Benucci waved four partisans ahead of him up a small side brook, while Chappell and the rest kept on going downstream. Suddenly Benucci realized that he was near the temporary quarters where his sergeants had gone earlier to send the messages. Four Germans were running down the road toward the house, and he raised the carbine that he had been carrying and let them have half a clip.
“One of them fell, and the rest hit the dirt,” Benucci went on. “This only took a few seconds, but it saved my life, because as I turned back to start following our four men up the side brook, I heard German voices and automatic fire just above me. I looked up and saw five S.S. men standing on the high bank, firing into the brook ahead of me. By some miracle they hadn’t seen me, though I was only thirty yards away. I lifted my carbine and emptied the clip at the group. Three of them fell, one body tumbling into the brook just in front of me. The rest pulled back, dragging the other two bodies with them. From Chappell’s direction I could hear a lot of firing.
“My carbine was useless, for I had no more ammo, so I threw it away. I still had my .45 and a hand grenade. … No matter what happened, I was determined not to be taken prisoner. I kept going up the brook, because there was no other place to go. Just as I reached the body of the S.S. man I had killed, I saw a place where the snow had drifted up against the overhanging bank. I dived into this cavity, scraped as much snow as possible up around me, and rubbed some clay from the bank onto my face and hands. I curled up and waited, scarcely daring to-breathe. In one hand I had my .45 pointed out at the brook, and I held the ring of the grenade in my teeth so that, even if wounded, I could pull it out and take some of them with me.
“Just as I finished concealing myself, I heard German voices. While I crouched motionless, an S.S. lieutenant came to the edge of the bank above my head and gave orders to two of his men, who waded into the stream and picked up the body. They were so close that I could nearly touch them, but their attention was concentrated on their dead comrade, and they didn’t look at me. They retrieved the body and carried it away.
“All day long S.S. troops searched the area, and several other scouting parties waded up and down the brook. Fortunately they kept looking straight ahead. I lay there wet and freezing for seven hours until it was pitch-dark and then rolled out of my hiding place, not knowing where to go. I was sure all my boys had been captured, and I knew such a trap could not have been an accident—someone had talked to the Germans. Driven by hunger, I made my way alone to the emergency quarters where we had buried some food and vitamins. As I crouched in the underbrush, I heard a voice inside the house—it was Nick! I hurled myself against the door, pounding it with my fists and shouting the password.
“They came tumbling out, the whole bunch of them, every single one safe. Nick kept shouting: ‘But we thought you were dead!’ I was all but carried into the house, and then I got the whole story. The bulk of the 7th Alpini had escaped the roundup and were concentrating in the VaI Moral, though we had lost eightyfour partisans in the fighting. They reported that Chappell and two of his men had been captured.”