The small municipality of Acquafondata lay high in the mountains at the nexus of the Winter Line and the Gustav Line, the fortified Axis defensive lines where Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Army Group C made their stand against the US 5th Army as it pushed towards Rome. This tiny handful of less than a hundred houses was so remote that it was coveted by both Axis and Allies alike as a shelter from which artillery could harass the forward battle lines.
The stories that follow are based on events that the people in and around Acquafondata in 1943-1944 endured. It was a special hell they lived in: not knowing who was friend, who was foe. Not having anything to defend themselves as they became collateral damage of both the Axis and Allied armies. These stories are not meant to sensationalize or entertain, but rather to remember a time that we owe to these people and to ourselves not to forget.
The Camp at Collelungo
“Many things will never be known, and the few that are are truly terrible” Marco Bruno, Combat Road History Museum
In the winter of 1943/1944, Acquafondata found itself between two fires: from Venafro came the bombs of the Allied areas, from Cassino and Sant Elia those of the Germans. The population lived in terror in the mountains searching for places across the countryside that seemed to be safer than the last.
Giulia Di Stefano . b. 2/10/1920. Italian civilian living in Acquafondata area ¹
It was half past midnight, and young Marco had been stumbling his way by moonlight in the snow all night through the forest towards Acquafondata. Along the frozen Rio Chiaro stream in the high mountains, he and the other 15 families had taken refuge near Collelungo when the Germans had seized the town that fall.
He remembered the bells that chimed from the church in town on September 8th marking the Armistice with the Allies. It had caused ‘explosions of joy’ among the population, it was said. For the first time in years they celebrated, and for just a day they lived as if for all the foreseeable future their lives would not be a constant struggle as it had been for so long. “A period of suffering, hardship, sacrifice, mortification, and fear was finally over,” young Aialide Lombardi had thought.¹
But soon afterwards, the German army began fortifying the mountains in and around Acquafondata, immediately treating their one time ally as traitors and enemies, shattering the illusion of peace. On October 16th they had arrived in town. Not with pomp and show as they had in Paris in 1940, but rather with no fanfare: Marco stood in the plaza as two German motorcycles and a Kübelwagen carrying a German Officer whose Iron Cross on his collar complimented his neatly pressed uniform, arrived in front of town hall. After a few minutes inside they had walked back out, the taller of the two Germans leading the mayor by his arm, loaded him in the Kübelwagen and drove away in a cloud of dust. Marco was more confused than afraid of what was going on. The Germans being their partners in the war they had been so convinced to support the last several years, seemed not to be a people they needed to fear.
But later that evening. They came. A line of trucks pulled into town and soldiers one by one began knocking down front doors, throwing men into vehicles, leading away animals and loading what little provisions the people of town had into the back of their trucks. Every once in a while, he’d hear a woman’s scream from inside a house and the discharge of a rifle. In a fit of commotion, the woman and children would run out the front door, followed by a German solider with a K98 smoking at its barrel. Before long the townspeople began running to the mountains, taking with them as much as they could, taking with them what animals they had. Fleeing this new, inexplicable danger from whom they thought were friends.
For a few moments, Marco found shelter in a cave and caught his breath, steaming in the cold, dark air. The silence of the night overtook him after what had seemed like hours of running. His stomach writhed in pain and hunger, having entered a state of catabolism as his body broke down its own tissue for want to food. He held his breath and listened for footsteps. None came.
On to Acquafondata
Terrors flashed through his head as he raced southwards through the woods and the German shouts and the screams from the villagers became quieter and quieter until they gave way only to the sound of the wind and soft crunch of the fresh snow under his feet. He knew the area well. Those games of hide and seek or tag just months ago with his friends from town. They would build stick shelters against the trees, pretending they were Italian soldiers away on dangerous missions in Africa. Now, as the tears ran down his face and he stumbled hurriedly in the dark towards Acquafondata, the thought of “playing war” made him sick.
At quarter to 2 AM he had finally reached the farms above the town. The Cascarino goat farm had long been abandoned and as he made his way around the pens he could hear German voices. He saw two sentries, smoking cigarettes and laughing amidst some conversation, their K98s slung on their shoulders. Ever since the Germans had arrived in the area in October, the townspeople’s livestock was never safe. The Germans, with their tenuous supply lines were desperate for provisions to requisition food from locals wherever possible. The people of Acquafondata, unarmed and defenseless, fighting for their lives after years of rationing, foraging to get by and struggling to maintain their sanity, often lost the only lifeline they had: the family goat, cow, pig or sheep.
Before the German occupation there were 10,000 sheep, 2,000 cows and 400 goats in and around the town, but in October after the occupation, they were scarce. Young Domenico Fella recalled the time when a German solider stole and led away his goat, who was not only the family’s lifeline to survive the winter, but his friend. He sobbed and begged as the German led the animal away. The solider seemed compassionate, but explained in broken Italian that he just could not return her. Domenico sobbed in the darkness as his family pet was led away for slaughter to the German army.
Marco cut a wide berth around the sentries, careful to not make a sound or excite the goats in the early morning’s moonlight. If he could only make his way to his old school mate Guiseppe he thought, who he knew to be hiding in the low plains south of town, he may be able to find shelter for the night, the warmth of a fire, maybe even something to eat. The Di Meo’s he had heard had taken refuge there when the Germans had moved in, Giuseppe’s father, a man of 43, knew that he would be taken by the Germans and forced into some form of labor as all of the other men who did not leave town were.
As he made his way down and around the pen, Marco slipped and with a thud fell to the ground, breaking a branch he had been holding as he made his way down a small hill.
The sentries immediately stopped talking and pulled their K98s off of their shoulders, pointing in his direction.
“Chi va li?!” one shouted in broken Italian.
Marco froze, still out of sight but terrified to move any further. As he looked at the soldiers from the ground, not daring to lift his head, he remembered the crack of the soldiers’ rifles in Collelungo. The fifteen families: forty souls, mothers, infants, little boys and girls. The screams of his mother still echoed in his head, begging for mercy as the K98s rang out in the night air. He remembered the crimson stream of blood coming from beneath her body and the shout in his ear, from who he did not know:
“Corri, Marco! Corri!”
So he did. And now he wiped off the dirt and tears from his face, stumbled up to his feet and began to sprint down the hill.
“Fermare!” the German yelled as a bullet whizzed by him, landing in the forest behind. He heard the metallic clunk of the bolt being pulled back and shoved forward as the soldier chambered another bullet.
Marco weaved and ran until he was well out of sight of the Germans and once he was at the bottom of the hill fell down next to a haystack to catch his breath. He could see beyond the clearing the woods where he last knew Giuseppe and his family to have been hiding. Just a little bit longer, he thought.
In the distance towards Cassino he could hear the dull thuds of artillery fire. The Allies were up early shelling the German positions, he thought. He prayed to the Virgin Mary that they would move quick and push the Germans from his town.
When he finally caught his breath, he began to cry again. Thinking of his mother. Why God would have allowed his quiet little village to have become the scene of such a hell.
Just a little bit longer. He thought. And he got to his feet and ran towards the woods.
- Le interviste son state realizzate da Eustachio Gino Mancone – c. 2000. Luigi Manfellotto
- Interview with Agostino Mancone and Eugenio Verrecchia. 2023.
- World War II in the Mediterranean, 1942-1945 (Major Battles and Campaigns) 1990. by Carlo D’Este (Author), John S. D. Eisenhower (Introduction)
- Header Photo: Dreamstudio AI. Winter in Italy. 2023.