The Allies had hoped to liberate Bologna before the end of 1944, but the Germans were able to hold the Italian front stable over winter in the Apennines, along the Gothic Line. It was only in the spring of 1945 that the Allies were able to resume their campaign.
To both sides, the outcome of an Allied victory in Italy seemed inevitable – it was just a question of time, and how many soldiers and civilians would die, before peace was declared. By early 1945, General Heinrich von Vietinghoff realized that German defeat was imminent. His troop losses were too great and he was no longer receiving supplies of arms and ammunition from Germany. Vietinghoff began to think of how the war in Italy might be concluded in as favourable way as possible for himself and his armies. In February, on his behalf, SS Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff began secret negotiations with US diplomat Allen Dulles with a view to arranging an armistice. This contravened the terms agreed at Casablanca – that only an unconditional surrender by German forces would be acceptable – and risked offending Stalin, who was not included in the talks or even consulted.Sicily
Monte Cassino and the Gustav Line
While negotiations were still underway, Operation Grapeshot, the final offensive of the war in Italy, was launched on 6 April 1945. Bologna was heavily bombed in preparation for the Allied ground forces, who approached the city from the south and east. US and Italian troops entered Bologna on 21 April, forcing the German army to retreat northwards, where its route was cut off by the Po river. The Allies had destroyed the bridge crossings and the German troops were compelled to improvise ways across, leaving their vehicles and heavy weapons behind.
Italy’s partisans took the initiative to declare 25 April 1945 a day of general insurrection, and this date is still celebrated as Italy’s Day of National Liberation. The cities of northern Italy quickly fell, taken either by Allied forces or liberated “internally” by partisans, some a mixture of the two. Genova (Genoa) was liberated on 25 April; Turin (Torino) and Verona on 26 April; and Milan (Milano) on 28 April. Mussolini and his mistress were captured on 27 April, spelling the end of the Italian Social Republic, and were executed the following day.
By now, the war was being lost on all fronts, and Berlin was close to surrender. German high command was determined to conclude a single peace with the Allies, but Vietinghoff defied instructions and flew south to the Royal Palace of Caserta, where he signed an unconditional instrument of capitulation with the Allied victors. The war in Italy ended at 2pm on 2 May 1945, when almost one million German and Italian troops officially surrendered to Field Marshal Harold Alexander.
This excellent museum explores the aims and methods of the diverse Italian partisan movements, which played a vital role in attacking the occupying Germans behind their lines. Resistance fighters used underground passageways to move around the city of Bologna; the tunnels can be visited by guided tour.
A narrative route through five scenes leads visitors through the events of the latter part of the Italian campaign, beginning with the round-up of civilians to build the fortifications of the Gothic Line. The bombings and daily lives of civilians are both explained, and exhibits include tanks, trucks, jeeps and a chilling railway wagon used for deporting Jews.
During the summer of 1944, tension among the German occupiers of Italy increased. The Allies were advancing slowly from the south and incessant attacks were initiated by partisans hiding in the woods and mountains of the Apennines and the Apuan Alps. Units of the Waffen-SS took revenge on the civilian population in order to discourage the Resistance. The largest single massacre carried out by the Waffen-SS in western Europe took place in Marzabotto on 29 September 1944. The specific number of victims is disputed, but the generally accepted figure is 770 casualties, 150 of them children. The site is now a memorial park with a chapel.
Unlike most war museums in Italy, this one tells a story not of battle, but of ignominious retreat. As German and Italian Social Republic troops withdrew northwards from the Apennines and Emilia Romagna, their way was blocked by the broad sweep of the mighty River Po.
The Allies had destroyed the bridges across the river, limiting the German escape routes, while the overwhelming supremacy of Anglo-American aviation forced the retreating troops to move almost exclusively at night, hiding in woods and buildings during the day. Numerous fires and high columns of smoke rose above the southern bank of the River Po between 20 and 24 April 1945. Lucky soldiers were transported to the opposite bank on the few ferries and boats available; others swam or made use of anything that would float: air chambers extracted from the wheels of vehicles, water tanks and barrels, wooden planks and even laundry tubs. Heavy weapons and equipment that could not be carried across had to be abandoned or destroyed. All this and more is explained using a variety of fascinating photographs and objects.
Italy’s resistance movements went further than carrying out acts of sabotage: a scattering of mini-states were set up by partisan groups in liberated corners of northern Italy. There were twenty “partisan republics”, which existed for brief periods from two days to a few months before the Wehrmacht arrived to reincorporate them into Mussolini’s puppet state, the Italian Social Republic. The Republic of Montefiorino, whose story is told in this medieval castle using documents, photographs and objects, survived for just 45 days from June to August 1944.
Jewish writer and chemist Primo Levi’s moving personal account of the Holocaust and the Liberation, If This is a Man, was published in 1947. Levi formed a partisan group in 1943 but was captured and sent by cattle wagon to Auschwitz. Of the 650 people in his group of deportees, he was one of only thirty who survived the war. This centre is dedicated not only to his memories but also to his thoughtful reflections on war, peace and human behaviour.
The word “indifferenza” (“indifference”) is spelled out in huge letters along a wall of Milan’s memorial to the Holocaust, a stark reminder of fascism’s greatest ally. Twenty trains of livestock cars pulled out of Milan station between 1943 and 1945 loaded with Jews and other “undesirables”, few of whom were ever to return. Some of the rolling stock used in the transports is on display today.
Top image: Bologna today © RossHelen/Shutterstock