After the Anzio campaign, US General Mark Clark had two options. His superior, British General Harold Alexander, ordered him to capture as many Germans retreating from the Gustav Line as possible. But Clark had his sights on the liberation of Rome.
Clark’s decision to turn directly towards the capital, rather than to strike a crippling blow to the Germans, is as controversial today as it was then. Did he pass up an opportunity to shorten the Italian campaign in order to win a blaze of glory for himself? Or was he driven by Roosevelt’s intimation that Rome must be conquered by American troops? Regardless of his motivations, by moving on Rome, Clark allowed the German Tenth Army to escape and continue its defence of northern Italy.Sicily
On 4 June 1944, Rome became the first capital to be liberated from Nazi Germany. It had already been declared an open city and was captured without any loss of life – a welcome relief after the heavy-fought campaign of Cassino. Italian forces fighting alongside the Allied armies were sent to the Adriatic front, meaning they could not participate in the liberation of their capital.
Rome was psychologically and symbolically important to the Allies. Aside from being of tremendous propaganda value, it was hoped that taking the city might draw German troops away from France and the impending D-Day landings – an event that would overshadow the conquest of Rome just two days later.
During the Nazi occupation of Rome (11 September 1943–4 June 1944), this museum building functioned as an SS police station under the overall command of Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler. Innumerable unfortunates were brought, many without cause, to be interrogated, detained and tortured. From the station, the only onward destination was Regina Coeli prison; extended captivity in Germany; deportation to another country; or execution at Fort Bravetta. It is estimated that at least 1500 men and more than 350 women passed through during the occupation, some of them partisans, others ordinary citizens. The museum brings together relics, documents and photographs, as well as thoughtful works of art. It has a particularly good collection of underground posters and flyers printed surreptitiously during the occupation.
Rome War Cemetery lies on Via Nicola Zabaglia, within the Aurelian Walls of the ancient city of Rome. It is reached from the Piazza Venezia, the centre of Rome, by taking the Via dei Fori Imperiali down past the Colosseum and along the Viale Aventino as far as the Porta San Paolo. It lies next to the Protestant Cemetery in which Keats and Shelley are buried.
The war cemetery contains 426 graves, mainly those of the occupying garrison; a few belong to the dead brought in from the surrounding countryside. Some soldiers and airmen who died as prisoners of war in Rome are also buried here.
Mussolini’s former residence, Villa Torlonia, is now a complex of three buildings. The main one, the Casino Nobile, has a bomb- and gas-proof shelter built on the orders of Il Duce. A film recounts the history of the villa, including Mussolini’s time spent here before his dramatic arrest in July 1943.
The Monte Mario French cemetery is located on Via dei Casali di Santo Spirito on the highest hill of the city (but not one of the legendary hills), rising above the right bank of the Tiber. It contains 1709 tombs of men from the French Expeditionary Corps killed between Rome and Sienna. Most of the graves – of which there are 1142 – belong to Muslim soldiers who served in the French army.
On 23 March 1944, Italian partisans placed a bomb on Via Rasella, on the route taken by a column of Italian policemen who had volunteered to serve with the SS. German Colonel Kappler, chief of police in Rome, requested permission from his superiors to carry out a reprisal for the attack; this was authorized by Adolf Hitler himself, who stipulated that ten civilians must be killed for each dead policeman within 24 hours. Kappler secretly emptied the jails of men, both condemned and detained, adding Jewish and Italian civilians to reach the required number of 335 – a figure hiked up by a mistake in counting. The men were taken to the tunnels of an old quarry and made to kneel beside the growing pile of corpses. Each was shot in the back of the head to conserve bullets. After the massacre, the Germans blew up the entrance of the Ardeatine quarry to cover their tracks, and most families were told nothing about the fate of their loved ones. It was only after the liberation of Rome that the massacre was discovered; the tragedy is now commemorated by a national mausoleum and museum.
This private museum in the Hotel Relais 6 (relais6.com) boasts a good collection of memorabilia connected with the liberation of Rome, including a jeep, motorbike, uniforms and a great many everyday military and civilian items from 1944.
Top image: View of Rome today © Luciano Mortula/iStock