German Reverses in the Mediterranean Part II

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Italian soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans in Corfu, September 1943.

Faced with battle-hardened German troops taking up positions all over the peninsula, Italian soldiers flung down their weapons, threw off their uniforms, or simply surrendered. Only a few units tried to resist, most notably on the Italian-controlled island of Cephalonia, off the Greek coast, where fighting went on for a week and ended with the German occupiers executing more than 6,000 Italian soldiers and sailors, shooting almost all the Italian officers in batches over a four-hour period of cold-blooded carnage. Half a million Italian servicemen were lucky enough to find themselves in areas already under Allied control. They were disarmed and eventually sent home. But 650,000 Italian soldiers were seized by the German military as prisoners of war, and then deported to Germany as forced labourers in December 1943. Their situation was far from enviable. Goebbels declared that the Italians were ‘a Gypsy people gone to pot’. Hitler thought they were utterly decadent. Many Germans were bitter at what they regarded as Italy’s betrayal of the Axis, which they compared with similar events in the First World War, when Italy had also changed sides. The Security Service of the SS reported that there are marked feelings of hatred in all parts of the Reich and all strata of the population against one people, namely the Italians. Basically people don’t hold the enmity of our real opponents against them. It is felt to be a matter of fate. But people can never forgive the Italians for the fact that after they have gone to great lengths to assure us through their chosen representatives of their friendship, they have now betrayed us so ‘despicably’ a second time. The hatred against the Italian people springs from the most profound feelings.

The German authorities treated the Italians particularly harshly, exacting from them a severe revenge for Italy’s repudiation of the German alliance. In terms of food rations and general treatment they were placed on the same footing as Soviet workers. At the Krupp factory in Essen, the average weight loss of the Italian prisoner-of-war workers was 9 kilograms in the first three months of 1944; some lost as much as 22 kilos. Death rates were higher than for any other group except Soviet workers. Up to 50,000 Italian prisoners of war died in these conditions. At seventy-seven deaths per thousand, this was five times the death rate of British prisoners of war; it was, indeed, the highest death rate of all western prisoners of war in Germany.

In Italy itself, the Germans’ outrage at the defection of the Italians found expression in numerous acts of gratuitous vandalism and vengeance. On 26 September 1943, after encountering some minor resistance as they marched into Naples, German troops poured kerosene over the shelves of the university library and set it alight, destroying 50,000 books and manuscripts, many of them irreplaceable. Two days later, while the library was still burning, German soldiers discovered 80,000 more books and manuscripts from various archives deposited for safe keeping in Nola and set them alight, along with the contents of the Civic Museum, including forty-five paintings. The German military commander of Italy, the air force Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, hurriedly organized the evacuation of art treasures from museums in Florence and other cities likely to become battlegrounds if the Allies succeeded in advancing up the peninsula. Soldiers and SS men took jewellery, furs and silver from palaces and country houses, or occupied them as billets, turfing out the owners. The Marchesa Origo, an Anglo-American woman married to an Italian aristocrat, arriving at her villa after the occupying German troops had retreated, described the scene that greeted her eyes: The Germans have stolen everything that took their fancy, blankets, clothes, shoes and toys, as well, of course, as anything valuable or eatable, and have deliberately destroyed much of sentimental or personal value . . . In the dining room the table is still laid, and there are traces of a drunken repast: empty wine-bottles and smashed glasses lie beside a number of my summer hats (which presumably have been tried on), together with boot-trees, toys, overturned furniture and W.C. paper . . . The lavatory is filled to the brim with filth, and decaying meat, lying on every table, adds to the foul smell. There are innumerable flies. In our bedroom, too, it is the same.

Allied troops continued to fight their way slowly up the peninsula. In their path lay the Pontine marshes, which Mussolini had drained at huge expense during the 1930s, converting them into farmland, settling them with 100,000 First World War veterans and their families, and building five new towns and eighteen villages on the site. The Germans determined to return them to their earlier state, to slow the Allied advance and at the same time wreak further revenge on the treacherous Italians. Not long after the Italian surrender, the area was visited by Erich Martini and Ernst Rodenwaldt, two medical specialists in malaria who worked at the Military Medical Academy in Berlin. Both men were backed by Himmler’s Ancestral Heritage research organization in the SS; Martini was on the advisory board of its research institute at Dachau. The two men directed the German army to turn off the pumps that kept the former marshes dry, so that by the end of the winter they were covered in water to a depth of 30 centimetres once more. Then, ignoring the appeals of Italian medical scientists, they put the pumps into reverse, drawing sea-water into the area, and destroyed the tidal gates keeping the sea out at high tide. On their orders German troops dynamited many of the pumps and carted off the rest to Germany, wrecked the equipment used to keep the drainage channels free of vegetation and mined the area around them, ensuring that the damage they caused would be long-lasting.

The purpose of these measures was above all to reintroduce malaria into the marshes, for Martini himself had discovered in 1931 that only one kind of mosquito could survive and breed equally well in salt, fresh or brackish water, namely anopheles labranchiae, the vector of malaria. As a result of the flooding, the freshwater species of mosquito in the Pontine marshes were destroyed; virtually all of the mosquitoes now breeding furiously in the 98,000 acres of flooded land were carriers of the disease, in contrast to the situation in 1940, when they were on the way to being eradicated. Just to make sure the disease took hold, Martini and Rodenwaldt’s team had all the available stocks of quinine, the drug used to combat it, confiscated and taken to a secret location in Tuscany, far away from the marshes. In order to minimize the number of eyewitnesses, the Germans had evacuated the entire population of the marshlands, allowing them back only when their work had been completed. With their homes flooded or destroyed, many had to sleep in the open, where they quickly fell victim to the vast swarms of anopheles mosquitoes now breeding in the clogged drainage canals and bomb-craters of the area. Officially registered cases of malaria spiralled from just over 1,200 in 1943 to nearly 55,000 the following year, and 43,000 in 1945: the true number in the area in 1944 was later reckoned to be nearly double the officially recorded figure. With no quinine available, and medical services in disarray because of the war and the effective collapse of the Italian state, the impoverished inhabitants of the area, now suffering from malnutrition as well because of the destruction of their farmland and food supplies, fell victim to malaria. It had been deliberately reintroduced as an act of biological warfare, directed not only at Allied troops who might pass through the region, but also against the quarter of a million Italians who lived there, people now treated by the Germans no longer as allies but as racial inferiors whose act of treachery in deserting the Axis cause deserved the severest possible punishment.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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