Antonio, despite being on 15 when he joined up, served in Italy on the side of the Axis, fighting with the Decima MAS. The Decima MAS were, strictly speaking, part of the Italian Navy, but since Antonio served with the parachute battalion and fought only on land, I have included him in the section for the Army.
ANTONIO CUCCIATI – November 2005
5.5.27 at S. Colombano. We were born here and our roots are here. We have a sister in Tuscany, and him and another brother in S Colombano. My sister is the eldest, and she became a nun at 63: she was late to mature. Before that, she taught, then, when our parents died, she took up orders. Of the two brothers, one is here and the other is also at S. Colombano. And I have two children. My wife died 8 years ago.
What did your father do?
He had an ironmonger’s shop, he was also a blacksmith and a plumber and he had a small business.
Where did you go to school?
In Milan. To the priests. We were all educated by priests, and my sister by the nuns. All my schooling was in Milan, even during the war. We boarded. There wasn’t a senior school at S. Colombano: we had either to go to Milan or Lodi.
And why were you sent to Milan? To be educated by the priests?
Yes, by the priests because it was cheaper. And also because our parents were very religious. [There were free state schools at the time, but obviously they weren’t religious enough.]
And were you religious children?
Yes, very. Also because my father’s brother was a priest. My grandfather’s brother too. My mother’s sister was a nun.
How were the priests? Were they kind? Was discipline very strong?
Yes, they were kind but firm. Discipline was much firmer in those days.
But were they stricter than normal teachers?
I don’t know; I never went anywhere else. But at home, too, they were more strict in those days . My mother taught, and with four children
Did she teach while you were small children?
Yes; she was a primary school teacher here at S. Colombano.
What were your hobbies as boys?
Football. I was good at football. But then, I used to fall in love too often
Were your family always supporters of Mussolini?
Yes, Yes. First, the Fatherland, then Mussolini.
Because that was our upbringing. You know why? Because in those years, there were many strikes. The priests were harassed by the left-wingers. They were beaten
Yes. Mussolini brought order; there were no more strikes. No more delinquency. He instated the INPS (Istituto Nazionale della Previdenza Sociale) [Welfare state system]. He encouraged industry. He also helped the church. When there were left wing demonstrations – you know, the left wanted to bring Communism to Italy – they wanted to flog the priests and the Pope. That is why 98 per cent of Italians were with Mussolini in the 1930s.
Do you remember how you felt when war was announced in Italy?
Well, I was 13 and he was 12, so we don’t remember much. Then, we were in our second year at boarding school in Milan. We knew it was happening, but we weren’t really in favour of it. In 1940, it seemed to us as though the war was just about to end.
Was your father involved in the war?
He was born in 1896. He was called to Milan to be a guard when they were carrying out exercises to do with the war. He was an auxiliary, at railway stations, factories, warehouses. But just for a few months. By 1940, he was 44, so he was too old. He was sent home.
And on 25th July?
On the 25th of July, we understood something of what was going on. Here, in the small towns, there wasn’t much confusion, but it was a surprise, and we were not happy. We already knew things weren’t going well: we knew that the Allies had landed in Sicily. [historical disquisition.]
You were still at school, of course, on 8th September?
Yes, at that point we began to understand something. Many Italians sold themselves to the Allies. The navy went straight over to the Allies. The French didn’t do this. [.]
So you were 16 then? Had you finished school?
No, I had another year to do. I went to technical college. Then in May/June 44 I went and joined the Decima as a volunteer. I did a course in swimming and parachuting.
Why the Decima Mas?
Because for us young men it was the â€œnon plus ultra [the tops]. Particularly for us land-based people, we wanted to go the sea. It was not a political decision: we weren’t allowed to join the Partito Repubblicano Fascista.
They were known as the lightning paratroopers, who had fought at El Alamein. They were saboteurs of assault weapons, and supply lines in Gibraltar, in Alexandria . . . They specialised in sabotage. Another reason was that we would not be obliged to train in Germany. All the other divisions were, but not us. So I’ll tell you where they sent us before we were allowed to fight (because the Germans insisted that we have at least some war training): they sent us to Croatia.
But we have jumped a bit now, haven’t we?
Yes, let’s go back.
So, yes, the Decima Mas had this halo, this reputation as a result of its successes in Africa.
Then, there is the principle that if you start a war on one side, you should finish it on the same side. For us, the 8th of September is the darkest day in history.
So, weren’t you too young to join up at 17?
Yes. We weren’t sent to the front line until we were 18. But after a while they started sending men who were 17 and a half. But there were only 2 or three of us to whom this applied in this unit. Because they needed us.
What was the process for enlisting in the Decima Mas?
There were temporary enlistment booths – I went to the one in Milan, but in all there were 120 – 130,000 men in the Decima in Italy. We were â€œdi terra [ie. Land-bound], we were paratroopers. There were also units who went on to join the Navy . . .
Were you on your own or with friends?
Two of us left S. Colombano. He [i.e. the other guy] came back home though: he only got as far as Lodi. You know, we left without telling our parents. We wouldn’t have been allowed to go by our parents. Lots of kids started off and never made it; the reality was not the same as their expectations.
Yes, on foot, hitch-hiking to Milan, then we were sent to Turin and then off to our various assignments.
So you went to sign up, and they asked you whether you wanted to join the Decima Mas or another division?
No, the place where we signed up was only for Decima Mas. They asked us which division we wanted to join. If I had joined the â€œMezzi d’assalto [assault methods/means?] I would have had to go on to do another 6 months of study. SO I went for the Paratroopers. We still had to train, of course. I liked the idea of being thrown out of an aeroplane.
So you went to Turin to train?
No, in Turin, they gave us our money, kit
How many of you were there in your group in Turin?
About 200. You were only there for one or two weeks and then you were sent off you your chosen speciality. We were in the Montegrappa barracks.
Then I went to San Fedele d’Intelvi above Como on the Borders with Switzerland. From there, they wanted to send us to Germany, but we refused.
The commanders of the division – or maybe the politicians, we don’t know – because all the divisions were sent to Germany for training; all except the Decima Mas. We refused to go. We were the best.
Were you actually refusing an order then?
Things were pretty anarchic. In times of war [sic] it would not have been possible to do this, butwe were virtually autonomous.
Who exactly was refusing to go to Germany? Not just you?
No, no, the whole division; commanders; everyone. So, then, in San Fedele, they said to us: â€œyou don’t know how to handle weapons, we need to give you some weapons training. So they sent us to the banks of the river Piave in the Veneto. When we had finished our training, we were told, â€œnow is the time for your baptism of fire.
What was your training like?
Small and large weapons training; we had German arms and Italian ones; personnel; drill;
Night training; but no parachute drops: we didn’t have any planes! We only did a total of 3 training drops, but not over the sea. We were supposed to be swimmer/paratroopers: sabotaging ports, but instead of dropping us over the sea or over lakes, they dropped us over dry land. There wasn’t enough fuel. We couldn’t run our tanks – in fact, we dug them in and used them as canons.
Did you train in all arms?
Only light weapons. Paratroopers have training in all light weaponry because they are assault troops. No tank training.
When did your parents first miss you.
Afterwards. He [his brother] came to look for me.
What, your parents sent him?
No, he came of his own accord.
Brother: we didn’t know where he’d gone: he left home without leaving a note or anything.
If I’d told anyone about my plans, my parents would have come to look for me and make me come home. I was a minor, you see.
Brother: He disappeared, you see, and my mother and I, because he had always been on about the Decima Mas, we went to Milan, to Decima Mas’ headquarters. We looked at the register of volunteers and saw his name and his signature.
My mother tried to get them to send me home, but they refused, saying that I had signed up and that was that. They needed me. Brother: he disappeared, so as to speak: he wrote home, but he couldn’t say where he was because it was military post, and had no post mark.
Mind you, there were only 4 or 5 of us who were minors, the others were all 22 or 23. But we were all volunteers.
Brother: but then we found out where he was because he sent us a post card with the name â€œVidorda [?] crossed out (not well enough). I was 16 at the time. Without saying anything to anyone, I went to find him. Remember that there was no public transport at the time, only â€œmezzi di fortuna [means of fortune]. All the bridges had been destroyed. You had to travel by night because you would be shot at from the air by day. I arrived and stayed for a week. They gave me a job peeling potatoes in the kitchen, and they asked me if I wanted to stay. No, no way: not peeling potatoes.
Antonio: So, we finished our course there, and then we went to Croatia. At Christmas of 44. Against Tito’s partisans. They were real animals. We would watch as the Allies made drops of supplies and then they fought over them. In the middle of those woods, they would perch on the tree tops and fire down at their comrades who were trying to get at the food before they could. When we arrived on the scene, the Yugoslavs fled! They were tired of fighting. Tired of war. They had been in the mountains for years whereas we were fresh.
At the end of your course, did you have to pass an exam or something? Did anyone ever fail?
No, no-one failed. We did have to show that we had
Was it frightening? Was it all an adventure?
Initially, I was scared. You couldn’t see where they were firing from: from a tree or
But before you actually arrived in Croatia? When they told you that was where you were going?
No, I was not scared: I was naÃ¯f. Unaware of the danger.
Not excited either. But when I got there, I was scared.
What was your battalion?
Nuotatori e paracadutisti (NP)
Before you went to fight, did you have certain expectations?
Yes, we did, but the reality was very different. It was more raw; rougher. We were reassured by the older and more experienced members of the battalion: they blazed the trail.
How did you enjoy the training?
It was a positive experience. It was good.
Did you make good friends?
Yes, yes, and we still meet up. There was good camaraderie. Then, the last two weeks in Croatia [they were there for 3 weeks], the Germans came. They wanted to see what we were capable of.
Who sent you to Croatia?
We went of our own choice, to show that we were capable of fighting on the front line. It was Borghese’s decision. You know that Borghese wasn’t found guilty, don’t you, when he was tried? Another reason we were sent to the Veneto is this: it was already known that we were losing the war,and the greatest risk was that Tito’s partisans would take Istria. All the units of the Decima were there: us, Bargbarigo, Lupo, Saggitario. All we wanted to do was to join the war, and to finish it on the side which we joined it on. But we always refused to â€œrastrellare the partisans. We only did it in Croatia, which wasn’t our country. Now I’m going to tell you a true story: The Barbarigo commander, (they were the best unit of the Decima), was killed in an ambush in Piemonte by the partisans. So, Borghese called all the commanders of the various units and said â€œNow, we must teach them a lesson, because these things are not done. Whoever wants to take part can do so; the rest of you can go home. Susanna Agnelli’s husband, for example, went home, saying that he was not in favour of these methods.
Then we went back to the Veneto [from Piemonte] in January, got ready and then went to the front in Romagna. There, we replaced the best German division: the Hermann Goering division. They said to us, â€œdon’t cock it up, because you always do.
Where were you?
Alfonsine Bagnacavallo. Prov. of Ravenna. Eighth Army was there; there were Polish, New Zealanders, Indians; all commanded by the English, however. When someone was injured, we would raise a flag to ask for time to retrieve him. We would ask for an hour or two; they would ask for half a day! There was no feeling of hatred between us. Like two boxers. We did hate the communists, though; but there weren’t any communists there.
What were conditions like at the front?
Good. Not at all bad. They treated us well: they gave us 6 months’ pay. We ate well. Yes, we ate very well. We had tinned meat, bread, chicken; there was plenty of fruit there because of where we were in Italy.
Let me explain something to you: there were only 20 metres between us and the Indians. By day, we would stick our heads up and say hello to each other. As long as there were no orders to fire, we were best friends.
Were there Nepalese as well as Indian troops?
Yes, Nepalese, Indian, a bit of everything. But one night they did something that was not so nice. I was operating the machine gun to cover another guy.
What kind of machine gun?
MG 34. They still sell them. A German gun:1,200 rounds a minute.
Did you have to re-dig your positions?
No, we just took over the Germans’ ones. They’d been there for months.
Were they made of concrete or earth?
Just earth. Nothing pre-fabricated.
Were they firing at you day and night?
But you said there was no shooting during the day?
No, you see, they were shooting, but because we were so close, they were firing over our heads. [shows us photo of the front lines with no-man’s land in between] You see, they didn’t shoot us here at the front of the front line because they might accidentally have shot their own men.
Did they shell you too?
Yes, and also, they sent shells full of flyers, so that when they hit the ground, they released thousands of flyers promising safe conduct if we surrendered. Some people did – saints are only in church – some people who had children down in the south. All day, the allies played the song â€œRosa Munda.
But to him [James] this looks like the Western Front in the First World War.
Yes. Yes. We were there all winter.
Were there any casualties?
Yes, I was injured. On my shoulder. But I’ll tell you about that later. No casualties to speak of. A few prisoners. Every now and then, a patrol went out beyond the lines and never came back. Then we would get these notes: I don’t know who brought the notes, but I think it was the Indians, because they would suddenly appear from nowhere. Notes saying: â€œwe have been taken prisoner They must have brought them over in the night.
The Indians didn’t have any ill will towards us. You know why? Because Gandhi was a supporter of Mussolini and Hitler [?!] Politically speaking, I mean, not with regard to the war. [James explains about the Gurkhas’ trick of leaving one man alive to wake up and find his companions’ severed heads beside him; they say that none of that happened to them.]
How was your time organised? How long were you in the line of fire?
We stayed there for 8 hours in the day, and at night, we worked in shifts. So one shift would last 12 hours in all: 8 in the day and then 4 at night or 4 at night followed by 8 in the day. There were two of us at each position. But in times of truce, we were not always at our positions; we’d come back to eat, for example. We only took our positions when patrols went out, in order to protect them. No, we had plenty of time off: our mess usually lasted a couple of hoursWe’d go back a bit into our territory and they would rig up little tents for us to eat in. They’d bring our food to these tents.
[Some discussion about how the Italians could disappear from the view of the Allies, since the terrain is so flat. It transpires that they dug dug-outs and banks to hide behind or in.]
It lasted all winter; it was a war of attrition. In the meantime, they were preparing for the final push, which came in April.
Did you ever get diseases, in all that wet mud?
No. We were well dressed, we had two or three pairs of boots. And we slept indoors, in abandoned farmhouses. We had showers, baths.
Then, at the beginning of April, the English landed at Comacchio, behind our backs. We then had to retreat or else they would have cut us off. Around that time, someone came looking for me. They came in and said, â€œCucciati, there is someone here from your town who is looking for you. (This guy later became head of the COMI – Comitato Politico Italiano.) All the while, we had to listen out for bullets/projectiles which were passing over our heads. If you could hear a whistling sound, it meant that the bullet had passed over you. If you didn’t hear anything, it meant it was coming for you. I was there talking to this man, and someone said, â€œon the floor, guys; it’s going to hit us. As I threw myself down, I could feel a warm feeling here [indicates shoulder]. I lost consciousness and woke up in the hospital in Argenta. When I fell, I had hit my nose and as I coughed, I coughed up blood. They thought that the bleeding was from my lungs. So they said to themselves, â€œthis one is done for, let’s just leave him to die – in a field hospital, they can’t really do anything about punctured lungs. I knew I would be fine: I tried coughing a couple of times and the bleeding had stopped. So I got hold of a nurse and told her what was going on, they gave me two blood transfusions and took me to the hospital in Padova.
How long were you in hospital?
About a month, moving from one hospital to another: they had to operate. . .Then, at the beginning of May â€˜45, I was in hospital in Gavardo [?] in the province of Brescia and they came with a lorry and said that all Republican soldiers had to either go to prison or to a concentration camp. I went to a concentration camp in Brescia castle. Then the Americans arrived. They summoned everyone. They asked us what unit we were with, and I said NP in the Decima, so they said, OK; you haven’t done anything criminal, you can go. They said, â€œDo you smoke? Yes? Here are 200 cigarettes. Do you like chocolate? Here. Baby; go home.
How did you feel at the end of the war? You must have known you were not going to win?
Yes, of course we knew. In prison they were treated badly. We’re lucky we were in the castle. The partisans beat them about trying to get information from them.
When my detachment retreated from Comacchio, they went as far as Venice. There, they didn’t hand themselves over to the partisans; they said, â€œwe fought this war against the English and the Americans and so we will give ourselves up to them. This was between the 8th and 10th of May. They were taken to a concentration camp in Algeria.
So, you knew you were not going to win the war
The first thing Borghese said to us when we joined the Decima was â€œWe’re not going to win this one [â€œqui, non vinciamo, dobbiamo salvare l’onore] â€œWe must salvage our honour
So, you feel you salvaged your honour and
Yes, I’m at ease with myself.
And did this, therefore, make it easier to accept the fact that you had lost the war?
Yes, but I was very ashamed, no, not ashamed, but appalled at what happened in Germany in the concentration camps. But no-one knew what was going on. In fact, we were subsequently accused of collaborating with those people, and our response is that the Americans were friends of the Russians.
Did you sympathise with the fascist militia, the blackshirts..?
No. In fact, we were quite separate from them. We even tried to throw them out.
What do you mean?
Well, the fascists did not want to accept that we maintain our autonomy. At one point, they arrested Borghese because he wanted to be independent. We were part of the navy; the navy and the air force were relatively neutral. They are technical forces, not political forces, you see. The fascists were concerned with public order: the carabinieri and the police. They never came to the front line. If they had gone, we wouldn’t have. In fact, when Borghese was arrested, we were preparing to free him by force and so they liberated him to avoid this. In fact, on an American website are written the words: â€œWe should not have allied ourselves with the Badogliani, but with the Decima Mas.
After the war, a lot of our commanders went to help train the US army. As spoils of war, we gave the Russians some ships. We gave them 2. We went to take them to Odessa (not me, but others from the Decima Mas). Two years later, an alarm rang in Odessa to signal that there were some mines: in an hour, they said they would explode. So the sailors on the ship were ordered to go on board, start up then engines and then flee. They didn’t have time to get away and 1,500 people died. This in 1950-51. The Russians said they were roving mines in the Black sea. But we know that 2 Decima Mas commanders had gone and put the mines under the ship and exploded them.
How long did you stay in the Navy after the war?
Two years. Then, I went home. To work for Shell. I was in the graphics department. In Genova. I lived there for 27 years. I never won a medal, and I class myself among those who lost the war. You see, everyone in Italy says they were on the winning side.
What do you think of the Partisans now? Sixty years on? DO you still have a feeling of
Yes and I’ll tell you why: they still say that to kill a fascist is not a crime. They massacred 70 to 80,000 of them after the war: not only fascists, but anyone who adhered to the Republic. Now, finally, books are being published about this. This one here [â€œIl sangue dei vinti] is written by a communist and that is why it has been published.
I always say that in one war, I lost twice.
Brother: They were in the Veneto in order to try to defend the Eastern front: Istria, Pola, Fiume. Instead of going down to the Senio to fight against the Americans (that battle was already lost), they should have gone to Istria to prevent Tito’s partisans from occupying Istria and committing massacres like the Foibe and atrocities associated with ethnic cleansing. They really could have made a difference.
Borghese and Churchill wanted to do this, but they [soldiers?] wanted to go to the front line.
You know how the soldiers crossed the river Senio? They drove tanks down into the river bed and then drove across their roofs.
[looking at photo of divisions who went to Germany to train] Presumably many of those never came back?
That’s right; particularly those from the Liguria Division.
Our uncle was a partisan commander in this area. But around here, there was not much activity during the war. The partisans used to go to the local farms to ask the farmers to hand over food, saying it was for the partisans – which it wasn’t – we call then â€œthiefisans [â€œladrigiani]
Do you now have friends who were partisans?
Society is still divided. The left-wing encourages these divisions. We would like to put an end to them. Don’t forget that the largest communist party in Europe after the war was in Italy.
In S. Colombano, the secretary of the fascist party was a vet. His wife was pregnant and he already had two children. He once fined a baker because he was selling white bread on the black market. He paid his fine and that seemed to be the end of the story. But after the war, some partisans arrived from Casalpusterlengo, looking for this man to kill him.
To kill him?
Yes, because he fined the baker and because he was a fascist. So they got him and took him into the square and put him against the wall; at which point the priest and the doctor stood in front of him and said â€œlook here, guys, this man is a father; his wife is pregnant, are you seriously trying to kill him because he made a baker pay a fine? They saved him, even if he was beaten up and put in prison. This was the worst thing that happened in S. Colombano.
When the war had finished, there were a few old Germans left behind in S. Colombano. They gathered up all the telephone wires to take them home. A partisan approached one German guy and took his gun. So he went back to the barracks and wheeled out a machine gun [?] with wheels at the front and caterpillar tracks at the back and fired on the whole town. Everyone fled into their houses. The next morning, the Germans had gone, and everyone had suddenly become a partisan.