When I accidentally entered into the time warp which would transport me back to the same part of the Brancoleria area in Mediavalle, but seventy years earlier to the day, I realised it was going to be a tough mission as a secret agent for the allied forces. We had to negotiate the German front on the Gothic line, take with us a group of displaced local villagers, known as “gli sfollati”, and make contact with partisan groups who were waiting for an allied attack on Mount Pittone. The whole area was heavily mined.
My knowledge of the Gothic line on the right bank of the Serchio was already extensive, covering the area of the anti-aircraft trenches above Domazzano which I had visited on a previous mission (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/olive-oil-persian-cats-and-the-gothic-line/) and the underground fortress below the crypt of Anchiano Parish church. I knew nothing, however, about the Brancoli part of the line.
First, under heavy defence, the camp padre blessed our mission and gave a reading of the Good Centurion:
One thing on our side was the weather – the crispest, clearest day one could wish for May, with views stretching as far south as the Volterra hills which seemed suspended in air and with the most gorgeous wild flowers inspiring us with hope.
But many more things were against us: the desperate nature of the German divisions which had suffered continuous withdrawal of seemingly impregnable lines. The Gustav line, for example, had been evacuated only a few months previously and both allied and Russian forces were ready for a pincher movement on Berlin. Yet the Fuhrer was still betting on his latest secret weapon, the development of the first nuclear bomb in a surreptitious laboratory in the heart of the Third Reich.
We managed to take an undercover forest route to reach the old castle of Pittone which Gerry had now converted into a massive bunker using the mediaeval, square cut masonry
We were caught by surprise by a German patrol that surrounded us and made us march along a precipitously narrow footpath with sheer drops down onto the railway below. Gerry had brought in a train loaded with tons of TNT and was ready to blow up all lines of communication for the advancing allied forces if needs be. “Keep on moving”, shouted a burly SS officer.”
We were herded into a cave which turned out to be another secret bunker and exited onto another dramatic ledge with the view of Piaggione below us.
I’d never realised that there was a sort of pre-gothic line, if you like, or that the gothic line had been divided into several smaller lines. Later we were to discover that Gerry had abandoned the main gothic line which cuts just below Borgo a Mozzano with the anti-tank wall I was to learn would be still highly visible over seventy years later on the new road to Lucca. It took our capture by enemy forces to realise these points but it was too late.
It was sickening for us to see the enemy forces enjoying their cup of ersatz coffee while we were parched in the day’s increasing heat. (Actually, it was them who were sickened by the evil-looking potion!)
We continued up an incredibly steep stretch of exposed, rocky mountainside and I was glad that we’d managed to cut ourselves walking sticks and were wearing some decent boots – any little slip could have precipitated us hundreds of metres down into the Serchio valley to our doom.
We noted than each bunker had a reference number which must have appeared on the axis maps. I wish we had better maps ourselves!
But what was to be our doom today at the gunpoint of fraught SS officers? Were we to be placed in the internment camp at Cocciglia? Were women to be separated from men, Jews from gentiles, old from young? And then? Not those infamous railway lines!
We finally reached the top of the hill and found ourselves before a chapel. Some of us fell on our knees and prayed to God for deliverance. It seemed somewhat futile.
Then we heard gunfire. In the thick forest below us German machine gunners and riflemen appeared to be retreating. Had the Yanks arrived to save us? Sure enough they had! A whole squad of well-armed and mobile US “buffalos” (or rather white buffaloes to distinguish them from their darker black buffaloes who later we knew would have served with such distinction at Sommocolonia near Barga) –the US 92nd infantry division, part of the Fifth army, had captured the German bunkers and driven the remaining axis troops out of them.
We crouched for cover. “Friendly” fire was also a probability but we knew who would win the close-range gun battle. The Germans were captured to loud cheering from us.
Then the time warp brought us back as quickly as it had taken us away back to Sunday 25 May 2014. All soldiers both axis and allied were lined up before the chapel.
The dead and wounded were brought in.
The auxiliary and rescue service were praised and lined up.
Then all the soldiers from both sides came together for Peace.
Speeches began and I realised that earlier that day I’d voted in the local European elections. “Whatever one may say about the EU, it has been instrumental in preventing war in Western Europe for the past seventy years. Let us hope that atrocities as were committed at Sant’Anna di Stazzema will never ever be repeated”, said the day’s organizer.
We were fed and watered in the grandest style and in the most exquisite rustic surroundings under the shady beech and holm oak trees in a part of the world which had returned to its naturally peaceful self.
Never again. Truly, never again may war scar this beautiful Lucchesia!
This was Italy at its best and most characteristic. Amazing vitality in history re-evocation groups which had come from both north and south of the Apennines, from both east and west parts of the Gothic line, which stretched from Viareggio all the way to Rimini, had gathered and performed their part superbly. They knew their stuff – even the gun battle which had liberated us at the end was reconstructed from oral testimonies of war survivors. Listening to the older people around me I heard even more stories of valour and courage, of treachery and suffering.
This decorated dog looked suitable panted out after the climb:
I wonder what this old lady thought about it all. What memories the morning’s events must have stirred in her!
It was all very moving as this country had been occupied by the most ruthless of Nazi-fascist collaboration and suffered a bloody civil war in a way which luckily the UK, despite the blitz and the doodlebugs and rationing, had never had to endure.
The hope is that it will never happen again. We must remember this in 2014, the seventieth anniversary of Italy’s liberation from Nazi-fascism, as we remember, too, the hundredth anniversary of the First World War which lost sixteen million lives and for which war there are today no living witnesses.
And, within another few years, there will be no living witnesses to world war two (which alone in this area was responsible for the loss of over ten persons per thousand inhabitants…).
We shall only have the incredible dedication of passionate volunteers, such as I met yesterday, in organising, to the highest perfection, a day which gave us everything we could have desired: a magnificent and thrilling walk in the most wonderful scenery, the most stupendous views, the deepest historical impact of WWII we could have gathered, more present upon our senses than any book could ever have given us and, to cap it all a delicious all-fresco meal of all the best food that this part of the world could possibly offer: Farro (spelt) soup, biroldo, lardo, pasta, hams of all types, cakes of even greater variety, vino in prodigious abundance, great, great company from both spectators and actors alike and the background music of Glen Miller and his immortal band too!
Superb! Well done to the Brancoli branch of the Gothic line committee. Truly, I count this as one of the best Sunday mornings I’ve ever spent in Italy, indeed, anywhere.
And more was to follow on that Sunday if you read my next post…