Secret Tales from the Italian Campaign
I’ve been having a fascinating time during a ten-day research trip to the States, not least pouring over Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC) files of their questionings of captured Axis troops. Having written at length already about the last year of the war in Italy, I was both enthralled and horrified to come across personal reports of a number of tragic cases.
Take that of Kurt Grimmling, for example, a twenty-five year-old former junior NCO from the 4th Fallschirmjäger Division. Grimmling was captured after crossing over Allied lines not with his fellow Germans, but with a group of Italian Partisans o 7th March 1945.
A former house painter from the heavily bombed Ruhr city of Essen, Grimmling had been appalled by the conditions in Germany during his last leave home the previous Germany and so ‘decided to throw in his lot’ with the Partisans in an effort to bring about a speedy end of the war.
Grimmling was not the only German to have joined the Partisans – and this was something new to me, for although I knew that conscripted Poles and Russians had jumped ship and sought to join Partisans, I hadn’t realized how many German nationals had done so – most, it seems, from a sense of desperation at the hopelessness of the German situation in Italy and the utter pointlessness of risking their lives for a cause that seemed so lost.
Grimmling found himself taken into the 65th Garibaldi Brigade, run by the much-feared Partisan leader known as Franco. There he also met Wilfred Heidrich, who, like Grimmling, was eventually turned over to the Allies. Heidrich appeared to be a fascinating character. Born in 1920, he was the illegitimate son of a German woman who had spent much time in both America and Britain. He never knew his father, but believed he was most likely English, hence the spelling of hia Christian name. His mother later married Richard Heidrich, after whom Wilfred took his surname, although his step-father was clearly vile and treated the young Wilfred with a ‘rod of iron.’ As his step-father became more and more Nazified, so Wilfred’s hate for Hitler and the National Socialists grew.
Like all other young Germans, however, Heidrich was drafted and in 1940 sent to flying training school to become a pilot. Earning his wings, he then learned he was about to be sent to Russia and so, in October 1941, deliberately destroyed his Ju88 bomber by crash-landing it and was promptly arrested. While awaiting court-martial, he was visited by his step-father, now General Richard Heidrich, who by that time was commanding the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division. It was the last time the two ever met, but the meeting was enough to get Wilfred released and transferred to his step-father’s division, where he retrained as a paratrooper and joined the 1st Fallschirmjäger Regiment. By March 1944, Wilfred was in Italy and a Leutnant. His time with his new unit lasted just two days, however, as after taking a car, he deserted and after selling the car for 30,000 lire, joined a family in San Giovanni in Persecito and working on their farm. There he also found love, falling for Rina, the daughter of the house, and later, in November 1944, marrying her.
All went well until the typhoon of war slowly rolled up the Italian peninsular. By the spring of 1944, Wilfred had joined the 7th Garibaldi Brigade, later taking command of a partisan ‘battalian’ and leading them in various operations against Axis forces. Through the summer of 1944, the hey-day of the Partisans in Italy, Heidrich continued his role of husband and Partisan, but during the crippling winter of 1944/45, things took a dramatic turn for the worse, just as they did for many Italian resistors. In December, during a German round-up operation by the 4th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, Heidrich was captured. His father-in-law and other male members of the family were shot on the spot, his wife was taken into captivity, and Wilfred was also taken away and condemned to death, the death warrant signed by his step-father, now commanding German airborne troops in Italy.
Somehow – and just how is not clear – Heidrich managed to escape. The 7th Garibaldi were finished, destroyed during two rastrellamenti in November and December, but he managed to join the still-standing 65th Garibaldi Brigade. Feuding broke out within the brigade, however, and not least with Kurt Grimmling, and with still no news of his wife, he decided to act upon the invitation of the American OSS and voluntarily crossed the lines to offer his services to the Allies.
Heidrich’s story was not one I had ever come across, but also in amongst the files were the stories of a number of teenage Italians, such as Riccardo Cortellessa, serving with the Fascist 1st Assault Battalion ‘Forli.’ Cortellessa was a sixteen year-old schoolboy, who, along with six others in his class, had been pressed into the Repubican Army in Brescia.
It’s hard not to wonder what became of these men and boys. What of Wilfred Heidrich? Was he ever reunited with his wife? In these interrogation reports, written for the most part in an unemotional and perfunctory style, lie the forgotten stories of a number of individuals caught up in an horrific war. It is that human drama that so continues to fascinate.
I have your recent book on the Dambusters. I see that you have no mention of Wing Commander John Kennedy Wilson DFC OBE and his squadron who carried out the diversion that night. I can only believe that it is still classified.
John Wilson was one of my school teachers who commanded a great deal of respect for among many of his qualities modesty was one. When I mentioned the Dambusters he said to me “Guy Gibson, He gets all the glory; I led the diversion that night”.
It was not till recently that I realised that there is no public mention of this and I do believe John Wilson and his squadron should get their due recognition.
I look forward to hearing from you.