Mid-summer in Ponte Buggianese, Italy, can be boiling hot, too hot to work outside, if one has any choice in the matter. But peasant farmer Agostino Spadoni and his wife Isola Fanucci were accustomed to the heat, and they went to work on their field as they did most every day. But July 6, 1944, was not like any other day for Agostino. It would be his last.
|Mussolini and Hitler|
The times were extraordinary for Italians everywhere. Benito Mussolini had waited as long as he could before embroiling his country in a war. He had watched carefully to see which side would win, and when Germany quickly overran France in the spring of 1940, Mussolini jumped aboard the German war machine in June, certain that he would emerge a co-victor and sit down with Adolf Hitler to divide the spoils. Mussolini chose badly, though, initiating five years of horrendous suffering for Italian soldiers and civilians alike.
|Ponte Buggianese prior to World War 2|
When Italy threw Mussolini out of office three years into its war effort and changed sides, the suffering didn’t end. In fact, it became worse, because the Germans were by then so entrenched in Italy that they were already effectively calling the shots, so to speak. In 1944, the 26th German Armored Division and other branches of the German military occupied the Valdinievole—a valley which included Ponte Buggianese, Montecatini, Pescia, Chiesina Uzzanese, Monsummano and many other smaller villages—because of its strategic position just three miles from the Arno River. The German army had formed the ‟Gothic Line” there to make what would be its last stand in an failed effort to stop the northward march of Allied Armies. By July, even the Germans realized that the line probably wouldn’t hold, but they tried to keep it secure to protect their fighting forces that were retreating from further south.
|A group of Italian Fascists on the old bridge in Ponte Buggianese.|
Resentment and tensions boiled between civilians and soldiers. Germans occupied Italian homes, compelling housewives to cook for them and men to work for them, or at least provide them with a few bottles of wine. In more extreme cases, soldiers would come into a home and arrest people on false charges and then extort them for money or jewelry in exchange for their release. Civilians had little choice but to comply, hoping that by their silence they would be left alone, and this proved true most of the time. But not always.
Among the civilians were groups of partigiani—partisans—paramilitary men who met in secret to plot disruption and violence. The partisans in Ponte Buggianese called themselves the ‟Silvano Fedi.” Fedi had been a law student in nearby Pistoia who was arrested in 1939 and held in seclusion for a year for spreading ‟anti-national propaganda.” An ardent anti-Fascist, Fedi returned to his home town after his imprisonment and continued to speak out. When Italy changed sides, Fedi lead a group of partisans that hid out in the countryside around Pistoia. He was killed by German soldiers in an ambush July 29, 1944, and the partisans in Ponte Buggianese named their group after him to honor his courage and conviction.
One of the officers in the Silvano Fedi was Pietro Bassano, a brigadier of the Ponte Buggianese carabinieri. Bassano observed four youths belonging to another group of patriots open fire on two German soldiers that were passing on a motorcycle and side car, wounding them. The soldiers fled and reported the incident to the general quarters of Ponte Buggianese. German officers ordered what the Italians called a rappresaglia, a reprisal.
Italian civilians living in the home of Ada Dal Pino heard about the reprisal first hand, because her home was being occupied by German Lieutenant Josef Brettnacher, Sergeant Major Martin Petschell and other minor officers. Petschell, who already had a reputation in the village as a bully, was heard to say: ‟For every German soldier that is killed, 10 civilians will die as a result.” Eyewitnesses recounted that Brettnacher and Petschell left with a patrol of soldiers and returned around 7 p.m. with some stolen bottles of wine. Petschell said that he had killed some civilians and added that if he heard of more attacks on German soldiers, the entire village would be burned.
Stories of the patrol’s activities that day emerged after the war from depositions given by residents to British officers. The Germans went to the neighborhood where the soldiers had been wounded and started firing their weapons in all directions. Then they went to the house of Maria Pinochi and killed Celestino Pinochi, age 77, and started the house on fire by throwing an incendiary bomb. Maria, who was working in the fields, heard the shooting and came running home, finding the body of her father-in-law lying in front of the door, with two bullet holes in his back.
Neighbor Bruna Quiriconi recounted that she was in her home with her husband, Marino, 35, when soldiers arrested him, sacked the house and lit it on fire before releasing Marino and leaving. After a few minutes, the soldiers returned and arrested Marino a second time. Friends tried to gather around and protect him, but they were beaten off by the soldiers and threatened with death. Marino then tried to run, but he had only taken a few steps when Petschell raised his rifle and killed the fleeing man.
Agostino Spadoni, 73, heard the noise of shooting and went to see what was happening. When he didn't return, Isola went to look for him. She found him in a field about 50 meters away. He had been shot in the head.
Two other civilians were killed in similar fashion that day, and another was killed 11 days later. Another five were killed in nearby Pescia nine days after that. But the worst was yet to come.
Continue to part 2 in the series