WILLIAM CREMONINI FOUGHT THROUGH THE NORTH AFRICA CAMPAIGN WITH THE YOUNG FASCISTS DIVISION, AND LATER FOR THE BIR EL GOBI COMPANY, PART OF THE BLACK BRIGADES, IN NEO-FASCIST ITALY
Before these interview get published, we always like to see a copy of them.
I was born in Poggio Renatico, province of Ferrara, on 19th September 1922. I was an only child. My father died when I was 5. We lived with my grandparents and my mother brought us up. She was an employee of the consorzio agrario.
Why were you named William?
I don’t know, I guess for an English man or an American. In the First World War, there were American soldiers stationed near our town, maybe after one of them, or they just liked the name.
I was at school till I was 14 and then I was taken on as an apprentice typographer at a printing works. Until I joined up. And from when I was still at school, because in those days, little boys were taken on as odd-jobbers when they were 8 or 9 to keep them out of trouble.
What were your interests as a child?
Sport, the Balilla, the â€œavanguardisti. The sport was all tied up with the young fascists; we did gymnastics displays, competitions. . .
Like the boy scouts today?
Yes, just like that.
Why did you join the Balilla? Did everyone?
Yes, 99 per cent. You started as sons of the she-wolf at 5 years of age; then you became part of the Balilla, then Balilla Moschettiere (Musketeer) then Avanguardisti, then Giovani Fascisti, then Fascisti, then you joined the army.
And at what point did the organisation become political?
We didn’t know any other type of organisation. It was only later on that we actually realised that it was political. In those days, everything worked well, discipline was respected and one might say that we were better off despite being worse off.
So were you happy as a child?
Yes, I was. We all got along with each other. It was a more gregarious society. Now, my children live such isolated lives. Perhaps we had less money, but we all looked after each other.
And if you were the type of person who kept their head down, you didn’t get into trouble?
That’s right, you’d have no problems.
Were you sometimes visited, as Young Fascists, by important fascists?
Yes, for example, Italo Balbo visited us: he was from Ferrara. He died at Tobruk. I remember it because I was in my first year of school and he came to inaugurate the school.
Were all your friends members of the Balilla?
Yes, all of them were.
Do you remember the day when Italy declared war?
Yes, I do. Everyone went out into the square to proclaim war.
Do you remember the moment when you heard the news? Were you at home?
All of my group of friends were together: were were all in a jolly mood because we were using the order to gather in the square as an excuse to have a bit of time off. At the same time as war was announced, they started enlisting the Giovani Fascisti. (Ines: and I went to throw flowers). I was in Bologna then: I moved there when I was 12 or 13. So this was in Piazza Maggiore in Bologna. Everywhere in Italy, people were convoked to the central squares at a certain time to hear the announcement broadcast over loud speakers from the radio.
Do you remember how you greeted the news?
We were full of enthusiasm. Maybe some older people didn’t see it that way, but we were all excited. And within a few hours, we had signed up. In a few days, 24,000 men had signed up. I joined the Bologna Batallion.
So was it not a problem that you were only 17 at the time?
No, you could join up at 17 or 18. If you were 16, you were not supposed to, although there were some 16-year-olds. There were 2 who were born in 1926.
How did your mother take the news that you had joined up?
I don’t know. She had to sign her permission because we were minors.
What happened next?
We enrolled, then we went to the barracks. Then all the different battalions were sent to Liguria and Abruzzo. The southern battalions were grouped in Abruzzo, and the Northern ones in Liguria. It was here that we started our training. Then, for the purposes of propaganda, we were marched across Italy. This was called the Marcia della Giovinezza [the March of Youth]. 3 weeks; 25 kms per day. We were grouped together in Padova, and Mussolini came to see us there.
Was this the first time you saw him?
No, because there were the â€œCampi Dux which he would visit from time to time.
Were you impressed by him?
Yes, he was a great man. [â€œuna grande persona – grande meaning important, impressive]
He had charisma.
You were still young, so politically naÃ¯ve, but Mussolini was a good man as far as you were concerned?
Yes. To give you an example, I saw him for the last time in Milan in November or December of 44; nearly at the end. There were people there who seemed entranced: he still had that power.
So, after this march that you went on [the Marcia della Giovinezza]
There were 25 batallions. They now had to go be with their various divisions. For example, my battalion was sent to Padova, in Emilia Romagna. Then, after a few days, they dissolved the battalions; I don’t know why.
What? After a few days?
After 5 or 6 months. We’d finished our training and they sent us home. So, at that point, we complained: â€œWhat do you mean? we asked, â€œwe’ve done all this training and now you send us home? We were in a barracks in the exhibition hall in Padova, and we were so disillusioned that we staged the funeral of the fascist party. We took some packing crates, covered them with black sheets and set them alight. We sang a funeral march. Our commander, Balisti, came and we booed him. He said, â€œso, you want to go to war: I’ll take you. There wasn’t just our battalion, but others too. But the majority of those who followed him were from the Bologna battalion (or 15th battalion), which was made up of the Bologna, Ferrara and Rovigo companies.
(Shouter: Here, he is talking of the battalions which made up the Marcia della Giovinezza: each battalion was made up of the capital of the province and its two other main towns)
Why did they recruit and train you if all they wanted was to send you home?
Badoglio didn’t like volunteers. So, he came to an agreement with the fascist party to send us all home. Out of the 24 battalions that we had been, with 25,000 volunteers, we were reduced to 1,500 volunteers.
Shouter: it was at this point, after they had set light to the pile of crates and burned a pavilion at the exhibition site, that they called the carabinieri and Balisti. Because of our protest, they organised two special GIL â€œGioventu’ italiana del Littorio battalions. We had very little money, because we were getting our salaries from the federal headquarters of the GIL in Rome. So, when we were in Formia, half of us went to steal oranges and the other half, chickens. The oranges, unfortunately, were the property of a fascist gerarch, the chickens were of a special Japanese breed and belonged to the queen.
Where did Balisti take you then?
Shouter: Balisti commanded the 1st Battalion. They sent us from where we were, in our various groups, to Formia. The 2nd Battalion went to Gaeta and the 3rd to Scauri.
Did your training continue?
Yes, we were always being trained, continuously.
In what skills?
A bit of everything: mostly machine-gun training, mortar training, Then, when we got to Africa, they began our training in anti-tank warfare.
Did you also do any all arms training?
No, only light weapons. In Italy. Only small (45 mm) mortars, machine-guns, another type of machine-gun [â€œfucile mitragliatore e mitagliatrice], then battle exercises and grenade throwing, bayonet attacks.
How long were you in Formia?
We were there from Dec 40 to end April 41.
Shouter: in the meantime, Balisti and Colonnello Talucci, who was commander of the 3 battalionswent to Rome to plead our case and a circular arrived on 12 April 41 saying that
The 31st Blackshirt Legion would be formed, aka Primavera. Then, the war ministry realised that we were all minors and therefore couldn’t be part of the army.
How did you feel when you disembarked in Africa: it was your first time abroad, I presume?
Hang on. First let me tell you. At this point, we had become ballerinas. We kept changing costume. [Another interruption from Shouter.] Eventually, we got our uniform and our stars and joined the army.
So you embarked in April 41?
No, they took us to Naples to continue our training and to wait for embarkation. Endless marches and parading in and around Naples. At that point, people began to get really fed up with waiting and stowed away to Africa. Then they took us from Naples to Taranto and we finally boarded ship. In July 41. On the 29th, we disembarked in Tripoli. No-one took us seriously, however, because we were so young. However, we continued with our training. They gave us one 47/32 [?] canon per battalion, and one 81 [mm?] mortar.
What were your emotions at the time?
We were impatient to go to war. We were fearful later, when we began to be fired on, but not then. Then we went to Misurata [Bizerta?], 200 Kms from Tripoli. There, we had our first encounter with the English: 200 prisoners were handed over to us. We shared our rations with them.
What did you think of them?
They were scared of us because we had black chests [shirts].
Were you in the mortar section?
I was a simple rifleman.
James wants to talk a bit now about Bir el Gobbi.
They took us towards the border and we ended up at the De Martino junction which is where the English tried to attack Rommel. Rommel wasn’t there, and we were sent to find these troops, who had got in by submarine. We’re now in November 41, the German army were pressing to attack the English. At the same time, Eighth Army were trying to attack us. There was a terrible thunder storm and it rained non-stop for 3 or 4 days. We felt as though we would drown in the desert. In that weather, there were no air defences, and so the English attacked us first. Then we were moved towards Tobruk. It was dreadful trying to move our weapons through all that mud. However, when we were on the road, the 2nd battalion were sent on towards Tobruk and we were sent back, much to our dismay. It turned out that we were to interrupt a column of English troops. When we reached them, they were in a pretty bad way as they had been bombarded by our aeroplanes. This was where we had our first casualty: at Gedabbia [?] Then they sent us back towards Tobruk. There were lots of skirmishes [?] Then we went on to Bir el Gobi. We took our positions on 2nd December. On the 3rd, the English started arriving – the majority were, in fact, Indian. We resisted for 3 or 4 days. Our commanders thought we were all done for because our radio had been shot right at the beginning of the battle. [there is a little bit more about the battle which I can barely understand. ]
While you were out there in North Africa. . .what was life like?… did you eat food from tins? Was there enough water?
We ate nothing because there was nothing to eat. Nothing to eat and nothing to drink.
Too many flies?
No, not that I noticed. Our main problem was chapped lips. Flies became a problem inland, in the villages. (shouter): there weren’t any flies because there was nothing to eat. Not in the desert.
When did you first hear that the Americans were arriving in Tunisia?
(shouter): In July 42. No, at the beginning of 43. They broke through at El Alamein, then they reached (William) when they came through the desert. When they arrived in Tripolitania, we began to become aware of their presence
After El Alamein, we pulled back 1,200 Kms so as not to be captured. We ended up in Siwa. From Siwa [?] we went to Gedabbia [?], fighting all the way, until 21 January 43 we abandoned Libya, and entered Tunisia.
James wants to know how you felt when you knew that the Americans were there, backing up the English.
We weren’t bothered: English or Americans, it was all the same to us.
And how was morale at the time?
(Shouter) always up with the stars. Even in the last days. We were never worried, not even at the end.
William: He was injured on Easter Sunday, 25th April and I on 29th April. On the hills of Enfidaville. Shouter: He [?] was at Takrouna, and we were at Enfidaville.
Where were you wounded?
I was wounded in the chest, him in the arm and he lost a leg. But my lung wasn’t damaged.
How were you wounded, William?
[indistinct] attacking a company of English soldiers. Our artillery was firing to prepare the ground for us. The English were in their foxholes, so we couldn’t shoot them, which had been the intention. So we got right up close to them, then we were able to fire at these English or New Zealanders – these guys were New Zealanders. They fled but, as they were running away, one or two turned back to see who we were. That was when they realised that there weren’t many of us. In 5 minutes, they had us all on the ground.
When you were hit, did you think you’d been seriously hurt?
No, no. I felt something like a stone hitting me, but it wasn’t, it was a Thompson. It knocked me over. I don’t know how long I was like that: perhaps 30 seconds, but when I regained consciousness, I couldn’t see anyone, so I tried to go back to the main front line.
And the others?
Just before I was injured, I had taken a prisoner, and had handed him over to them to be guarded. He helped them to get back. He was a New Zealander. The only prisoner taken on 29th April.
So your comrades must have thought you were dead: how come they abandoned you?
They didn’t abandon me: I told them to reteat.
I’m sorry, I don’t understand: how did you tell them to retreat when you were unconscious? Can we go back a little?
[interruption from shouter explaining what was going on on the ground from 24th April onwards, as part of Montgomery’s push to break line at Enfidaville]
So you came back to consciousness and the what?
And then I tried to get back behind our lines. I was perfectly fine and I still had my gun. Before being able to get there, I found myself in front of a minefield. I didn’t know how to get through. While I was thinking about it, I felt my strength fail again. I then thought that I’d rather die killed by a mine whilst trying to regain my company than stranded before a minefield which I didn’t dare to cross. As I was crossing it, I fell upon some Germans. They took my jacket off, and then the blood started glugging out. Then they bandaged me up and took me to our medication tent, where I was given a morphine injection. Then I was taken to a field hospital and I met up with the other men from my unit who had gone off with the New Zealand prisoner. When a priest came in to take our confessions, I sent him over to someone else. It gave me the feeling that I was dying.
From here, they loaded us onto ambulances and took us to Tunis, to the proper hospital.
In Tunis, the hospital ship arrived and they loaded us up and took us to Italy. It was the last hospital ship to leave Africa. On the 6th of May, we disembarked in Naples, injured. We were looked after in hospital for a while, then the 25th of July happened, then the 8th of September, then we went away [?] Then we became part of the Repubblica Sociale and we fought the war for another 2 years.
Did you think at any point that the war was over?
No, no. [Shouter]: for some, it was finished, but not for us.
So where were you on the 8th of September?
At home. They had sent me home (to my mother’s house) to convalesce for 3 months. After that, they gave me another 45 days’ leave as I was not yet fit. I was on my way back from the check up (after the 3 months’ leave) on that very day, 8th September. From the train from Bologna to Poggio Renatico, where our family home was, in a village called San Pietro in Casale, I saw crowds in the streets, waving flags because they had just heard that the war was over. In fact, it was merely starting again, for us.
And how did you feel? Were you pleased that the war was over?
No, not pleased, in fact, I immediately gave up my 45 days’ convalescence and went to join up again. For me the war went on. We were disgusted: it was a shameful thing to flee like that.
I went to the Luftwaffe headquarters. In Poggio Renatico, because they had occupied the airport.
We leapt ahead a bit, but can we go back to 25th July and ask you how you took the news of that day?
We felt bad, but because the war was going on, we didn’t dwell on it.
And on the eighth of September, were you thinking along the lines â€œI’ve fought so hard, I have lost all these friends, and what for?
We fought in a war, then on the 8th of September, they came to us and told us we should be shooting the Germans. Until the day before, we had been fighting with them. The first medical help I received was given me by the Germans. We fought side by side. I don’t know how it was in other areas, but in Africa, there was very great camaraderie between the Germans and the Italians.
So you could never see them as your enemy.
No; how were we expected to make such a change so suddenly?
So you took it really badly, the news on the 8th of September
For many Italians, it was a kind of liberation. They were fed up with the war. For us, who had continued to fight, it was a sad thing, a shameful affair.
So, by now you had rejoined the 1st battalion?
No, the regiment had by now been taken prisoner in Africa. I went straight to the Germans because I wanted to fight on. Then, I ran into one of my officers, who had also been injured. He said, â€œDon’t go there; it is ugly to fight in someone else’s uniform. Let’s hang on a bit and see what happens. Then, Mussolini was freed and the Socialist Republic was formed and we continued to fight in our own uniform.
So you never actually joined the Luftwaffe in the end?
No, after 10 days, I rejoined my unit. In the void after the 8th of September, the only way to continue to fight was to join the Germans. Then, they reformed the Italian army.
And why the Luftwaffe? Because it was the nearest German base?
Yes, at Poggio Renatico.
After the 25th of July, the survivors from among the Giovani Fascisti were dissolved.
[interruption]: You see, there was a terrible vacuum after the 8th of September; people like William who didn’t know what to do. .. .
So the Germans didn’t give you any orders?
No, the Germans simply disarmed us. They disarmed the army.
After the 25th of July, when the units were dissolved, I was at home recovering from my injuries. Others were with their units. They were all sent away. My unit was sent to join the Decimo Arditti.
[shouter]: No, you are getting confused. The Giovani Fascisti who were with their units on 25th July were in Rome at the 81st Fanteria. They were going back to their barracks after having been on a demonstration and they were singing: â€œNei confine battglioni di Mussolini – at the frontiers, Mussolini’s battalions. The exit to these barracks was right next door to the carabinieri barracks where Mussolini was being held. Just imagine how we would have felt if only we’d known that Mussolini was being held prisoner there. After 2 days, the Italians came and surrounded the barracks with tanks. Not the Carabinieri, the PAI (Polizia Africana italiana). The soldiers were gathered together and a colonel said, â€œNow that fascism has fallen, you must follow us or we will put you all in prison. SO they began to complain. Some volunteers protested. Instead, our captains said, â€œlads, the fatherland is at war, let’s continue to fight. They made us take off our fezzes and asked us where we wanted to go: there were two divisions we could join. Do you want to join the Sassari division or the Decimo Arditti? The majority went to the Decimo Arditti. On the 8th of September, some of those who had gone to join the Decimo Arditti fled in trucks (Spa -AS – 42 [?]) presented themselves before the Germans in Rome and were sent straight away to guard the [acronym], which is now the RAI [state broadcasting company]. [and on he goes. James, if you want me to transcribe/translate, I will gladly, for my ref. it is at 14:28 of Cremonini 2].
William, can we continue with your story?
Yes, we were going back to our barracks with our commander. WE were at [?]. [Indistinct mutterings out of the corner of his mouth] they [other Giovani Fascisti?] took Palazzo Grassi in Rome, and formed Pavolini’s trusted body guards. Pavolini had temporarily taken charge of the government in Mussolini’s name. When they came up here to the lake, to Salo’, I came straight away to join them. I went to see Balisti in Brescia [?] and I said that these men were from my company and that I’d like to join them.
Balisti was back in Italy?
Yes, he was exchanged as a prisoner.
And he reassumed charge of you?
No, he was made a party functionary.
[conversation between James and Julia clarifying things. Some of William’s injured friends from N. Africa were in Rome. Some of these became Pavolini’s bodyguard.]
How did you know to link up with Pavolini’s bodyguard?
I went to see Balisti, who was now head of the province of Brescia, in the government of Salo’.
Was he still a major?
Yes. He still wore a major’s uniform. I went to Balisti, and he said, â€œWhy don’t you stay here with me? since he also had a bodyguard.
Did you write to Balisti or present your self in person?
In person. We had spent many years together. I asked him where my detatchment was and he said it was in such-a-place. I went to join them in January of 44. They were in Maderno. On lake Garda.
So, what happened in the intervening period?
I was trying to find my detatchment. Then, with Pavolini, we began to participate in action. Pavolini was in Florence, he organised the francs tireurs, there were some 200 boys. [discussion between J and J about what franc tireur means!]
James and I haven’t understood what franc tireur means in this context.
They were defending Florence from the partisans. When the Americans entered Florence they met with some resistance put up by these men.
What was the name of the group of soldiers who formed Pavolini’s bodyguard?
Compagnia Bir el Gobbi. Bodyguards.
Was that your official name?
[nice younger soft-spoken guy in yellow jumper:] they were not an official group but an unofficial group. They gave themselves the name.
How many of you were there.
At the beginning, there were 51 of us; Giovani Fascisti veterans of Africa. Later on others joined and there were 200 of us.
How many of you were there in Pavolini’s guard? Were you all part of Pavolini’s bodyguard?
Yes. [and someone else says: no!]
And you were all N. Africa veterans?
Was there anyone who had been a young fascist who had been wounded who didn’t become part of Pavolini’s bodyguard
[shouter:]I explained this to you before. There were 524 Young fascists. Of those, 519 adhered to the republic. 51 joined the Bir el Gobbi company. 124 went with the Ramke, 16 joined the Bersaglieri, amongst whom myself as lance corporal. 25 joined the Decima Mas. Disquision follows at 22:39 if you want me to translate it.
William: our guys who ended up with the Ramke fought in Russia. They ended up in Brescia and were taken to England as prisoners. There was one of them (he has since died) who, at Bir el Gobbi, we shot at a tank and stopped it. An English soldier got it in the stomach. We went up to take him prisoner and, as we approached him, some English armoured cars drove up. We retreated behind our lines. The next mornig, we re-emerged, looking for food and weapons. We had left the soldier beside his tank and we found him dead, next to the tank. One of our guys searched him and found his wallet, with all his papers. That was in 41. In 44, this Italian soldier was a prisoner in England; I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to contact the English soldier’s family. He stayed in contact with them until 3 years ago, when he died.
Back to Florence. ..
Yes, well there was nothing much we could do in Florence, so we retreated, leaving behind these young francs tireurs.
Do you remember where you were when the allied offensive began again in May 44?
I was in Maderno. In the headquarters. We started actions in July of 44. I was in Tuscany and I then went to Piemonte.
But I thought you were In Maderno?
No, Maderno was our headquarters. We were defending the Gothic Line.
So, let’s go back to May 44, when you were in Maderno?
Yes, we went down to Tuscany; this was in June/July. After we had been in Florence organising these groups of francs tireurs, we went to Piemonte, to join the guerrilla war against the partisans. We operated for 3 or 4 months in Piemonte. Until October. Pavolini was injured in a clash with Partisans.
What uniform were you wearing at the time?
Young Fascists’ uniform.
[42:38 there follows a long and confusing discussion about what constitutes young Fascists’ uniform. I am sure that I could work it out, but it will take time]
You were Pavolini’s bodyguards. If someone wanted to issue you with some orders, how would they address you officially?
â€œCompania Bir el Gobi
Was the action you entered into In Florence the first you saw since joining the Company?
SO, you retreated just as the Allies were arriving?
Yes. When the Americans had reached the Arno, we retreated.
Were you fighting alongside the Germans at this point?
Yes, we retreated together to the Gothic line. We went to Piemonte, and there we remained on the Gothic line.
Going back to Florence, did you fight [James wanted to know if they were involved in street fights, but I was interrupted]
No, we retreated. More than anything else, there were some skirmishes with Partisans.
And were you involved in these skirmishes?
It is one thing to fight against the English, the Americans. But against the Italians
You see, they ambushed us when we were on the road to Piemonte.
Yes. For Example, on New Year’s Eve of 44/45, we were at the theatre in Milan watching a ballet. Some young lads came up and started firing at us.
How come they didn’t kill you, at such close range?
They did: they killed one of our boys.
How did you feel, having to shoot one of your compatriots?
At that time, they were our enemies. They were enemies on the inside.
Were you conscious that this was civil war, or were you too young to think about such things?
In a certain sense, we were aware. For example, when I was in Milan, I used to go to the barber’s. I always kept my gun within reach. I would keep an eye in the mirror on who came in. You couldn’t recognise them since they weren’t in uniform.
A little bit like being a soldier in Northern Ireland?
Yes, for example, when we ate in a restaurant, I would always take care to have my back to the wall.
Did you feel anxious all the time?
Yes, we were very tense. When we went around town, we always travelled against the traffic flow.
So, it must have been a very stressful period?
Yes.[yellow jumper:] It was a type of civil war and William was functioning as a policeman.
SO, in July, August and September, you were in Piemonte. James would like to know something about your actions against the Partisans.
Yes, we were fighting against the Partisans; we would go out looking for them, but naturally, they would escape. They would always get away: it was very hard to engage them in a fight. You had to pin them down.
Did you ever manage to do that?
Yes, yes. You can see from the history books that they managed to occupy the Republic of Valdossola in the Novarese. As soon as the detatchments of the RSI (the Decima, the Compania Bir el Gobi) took an interest in the Republic (of Valdossola), they abandoned it.
Were you stationed in barracks or in houses when you were in Piemonte?
We were in tents and in army barracks – carabinieri, alpine.
Were you ever attacked in your barracks?
Were you aware of Kesselring’s declaration that 10 Italians would be killed for every German?
Yes; there were posters on the streets. It wasn’t just a German thing: the Russians killed 20 for every Russian soldier killed.
The partisans caused you huge trouble
Well, we were in a state of alert.
But, Kesselring considered them a considerable impediment
Not really. Ball breakers.
But Kesselring felt it went further than merely breaking balls. He would not have made all those declarations and threats if they had been a lesser hindrance. He found their threat quite considerable.
Well, our strength was being dissipated.
But do you think that these measures which Kesselring took were justified?
Now I’m going to tell you a story. We had some contact with some Partisans in Piemonte; a battle with the partisans. They had supremacy over us. They were a company, we were a small detatchment of 20. They killed 2 or 3 of our guys and they took about 15 prisoners. I went up the mountain to where this had happened. I got hold of one of the villagers, I put my Thompson up to his head and he said, â€œThere’s no-one left here and I said, â€œOK then, you show me: you guide me and then you’ll be the first to know if we find someone. In fact, we got to this castle and I found two of my soldiers lying dead and no-one else around. Then the owner of the castle, a woman, fired a long discourse at me in German (she thought I was a German and I was in camouflage so there was no telling from the uniform). She was crying and crying. After a while, I stopped her and said, â€œSignora, please explain it to me in Italian. She stopped crying instantly and explained that the partisans had occupied the castle (I already knew about this). She had no news about the prisoners. SO we went to the priest and asked him to make contact with the partisans. The priest tried to make excuses: there’s a curfew and this and that, but we said, â€œlook, here is a pass; go and find them or else we will start to set fire to your buildings at midnight. At 11.30, he came with a note from our officer saying that he had been taken prisoner with the names of the other. From that moment, we began a process to exchange them for some of their men. Within about 10 days, we had captured/got together enough partisans to enable this exchange to happen. We didn’t hold any partisan prisoners: the Germans took them all away when they were captured.
[movement and commotion and interruption] I [Julia] wanted to recap [indistinct]
We knew there were some partisans up there, but we didn’t know there was a whole brigade. There were only 20 of us who were sent up, and as soon as they approached the castle, they were fired on from the castle windows. We had also placed a machine gun just below the castle, but we were grossly outnumbered. We were firing at them too: those who were in front went into the castle, those who were behind replied to the partisans’ fire. Two of our men were killed, as I have said and two were injured, but managed to get away. The other 13, with one officer, a colonel, managed to get into the castle, but then they were cornered and forced to surrender. I was one of the first to arrive on the scene after this battle; the village seemed empty but I got one of the villagers at gunpoint to show me that it was. When we got to the castle, it was in fact empty except for its owner and our two dead soldiers, who were already laid out in the chapel. [ then more of what he has already told us] I asked the lady owner of there was anyone else in the castle and I was taken to a cellar [?] where there were many people. I didn’t know whether they were partisans or not: I didn’t really trust her. While I was waiting for back-up, I placed myself in a dominating position and sent for the priest in order that he should make contact with the partisans to trace our men [repetition of the above]. When our soldiers were returned to us, they said they had been treated very well: food had been divided equally etc.. Except that every now and then they would release them saying, â€œnow you’ve got to find your way to Switzerland with no boots. Of course, this didn’t happen with our men because they were needed for the exchange.
So the lady who owned the castle was crying because she thought you were German and was frightened of what you might do to her?
No, she just stopped crying because she was surprised.
Were there other incidents like this?
Well, they always ran away. Except when they couldn’t.
How often did you manage to pin them down?
We did manage to trap them, but then they would either give themselves up or we would fight. They would, of course, try to ambush ussometimes, when a platoon of our men was on the move, they would disguise themselves in fascist uniform and jump usThey were always moving, always running away from us. When they took prisoners, we would comb an area. After the war, they told us that very often, we were close to them and they could hear us, but we rarely caught up with them.
Did your experience in North Africa help you in this war, which was so different?
It helped us in the sense that we were highly trained and very fit. WE knew how to use our weapons, we could be on our feet for long periods.. .
Fear also comes from the unknown
In war, there is always fear. The question is how well you can control your fear. Either you are completely unaware, naÃ¯ve, or else you are bound to be afraid.
You don’t get used to being afraid?
In your photos, you look strong, confident, open
I don’t know. I was always the soldiers’ friend. Every now and then, I would beat them if they did not obey [?], but I always gave them what they wanted.
Were you ever involved in rastrellamenti?
And sometimes, civilians would be hit in the rastrellamenti. Did you ever see this happening?
In our rastrellamenti, civilians were never involved. There is an ugly fact. In every town, there is a vet, a priest, a doctor. The partisans would threaten them and they would inform.
And if they didn’t, they would be beaten up?
I think so.
Can you confirm our impression that, if civilians helped the partisans, there was a threat that they might be killed, but that the fascists often turned a blind eye.
Fascists didn’t kill anyone except out of necessity.
But you could interpret killing a civilian who helped the partisans as a necessity; he/she was helping the enemy, surely?
Yes, but it had to be proved. The Germans didn’t have any proof, and yet if one of theirs was killed, they would kill 10 civilians. Besides, the communists (because, generally, the partisans were communist) often provoked these reprisals to stir up hatred in the community against the fascists and the Germans.
Did you ever see any SS undertaking any of these reprisals?
I saw SS soldiers: they were very respectable people. They were very disciplined. I never saw them carry out any reprisals: I heard tell of them
James knows well that atrocities were committed by both sides; he doesn’t want to seem partial, but he would like to have your reaction to these terrible reprisals like the one at Marzabotto.
Well, look, Marzabotto is close to my house. There, the Stella Rossa went on shooting at the soldiers, particularly when they found that they were on their own. They provoked the soldiers who let them do it once, twice, three three times. . . Then the front line was retreating and they needed to free up the whole area. The Germans and those who were there warned the civilians: â€œgo away, because there will be some rastrellamenti here; we need to clear the area. The partisans, for their part, said, â€œno, you stay here. We are here to defend you. And when Reder’s battalion arrived, and started to rastrellare for real, the partisans left. Some crossed the line and went with the Americans. Lupo, the commander of the Stella Rossa, had accumulated money and jewels from all the people around, intending to distribute them to the poor after the war. Instead, the partisans killed him in order to get their hands on his booty.
Did you know Mario Musolesi?
No, I never met him, but he had fought in Africa and was from Marzabotto, from Vado. He was a year older than us.
Did you ever meet Reder?
No, the only one I ever met was Dolmann. He was in Florence at the same time as me. I met him because he came to our aid at one point. In Florence, we had 2 of our own trucks. They were hidden in a mechanic’s workshop. The German paratroopers arrived in retreat and they were requisitioning all the vehicles they could find. So we went to an officer called Fullman [sp?] and asked him if we should shoot the Germans to defend our trucks. He said he’d shoot us if we shot his compatriots. So the paratroopers jumped into the trucks. Our reaction was to fire a volley of machine-gun fire at them, at which they jumped down again. At the same time, Dolmann came out of his hotel (he spoke perfect Italian and he knew us because he had links with Pavolini). He spoke the Germans and they went away.
What was your impression of Reder?
My impression is that he was a soldier.
What was your morale like towards the end of the war, when it was clear that the fascists had lost?
We already knew right at the start of the Repubblica Sociale that we were on the losing side. The Americans already had the upper hand.
Did you ever ask yourself if you made the right decision?
It’s one of those questions that I have never asked myself. I just carried on fighting. When we retreated from Bologna, with the Poles already at Porta Mazzini [?], I passed within 200 metres of my front door. But I didn’t stop at my house; I carried on retreating. For me, even if the war had gone on another 10 years, I would have gone on fighting as long as I was not wounded. Out of honour; because I thought that that was how it should be.
After the war?
After the war, I shed my uniform and hopped from one place to another: staying in convents and monasteries from time to time, and also in hotels – I had saved up some money. My documents said that I was an ordinary citizen and a passed myself off as a repatriated POW from Germany.
And were you successful?
Yes, until I went back to Bologna, because I was not known/recognised. I got back to Bologna one afternoon, and by the evening, they had come to get me: â€œMr Cremonini, accompany us to the police station. â€œCan’t I at least eat my supper? â€œNo. We’ll only be five minutes. Instead, those 5 minutes turned into one year. 5 months in prison in Bologna, then they sent me to Milan.
After you were freed, what did you do?
I went back to Bologna. For 5 years, I didn’t do anything; it was impossible to find work. My mother had to maintain us. From 1950 onwards, we tried to lead an ordinary life. In 1950 [sic – maybe he means till 1950] the police would come from time to time to check up on us. I got married, and in 1951, I found a job as a typographer. I went in as an ordinary employee and by the end of the first year, I was foreman.
When were you made a sergeant?
I was a â€œsotto soldato [NCO?] for three and a half years, then they promoted me to corporal, lance corporal, sergeant, so that I could command. I was quite happy as an NCO.
Were you there when Pavolini’s coach was attacked?
They called me back when he was in hospital in Turin and I went to guard him there.
What did you think of Pavolini?
He was a very brave man, honest.
Were you upset that he was killed at the end of the war?
We were attached to him. We knew his family, his children. His son was head of personnel at Alitalia. His daughter married a Frenchman.
What did you think of Elena?
I first met her when I went from Florence to Piemonte. There she was hanging around the barracks. She was everybody’s friend; she used to bring us cakes (I would eat them all) [it is hard to hear due to general commotion, but the gist is that she was one of the lads]
Did you know that she was Mussolini’s daughter? Were you aware of the rumours?
We knew because we were received a couple of times by Mussolini at Garigliano. We were given passes to see him by her. We inferred that she might be his daughter. In a certain sense, she was Mussolini’s informer.
Did you get married?
Yes, I met my wife at Maderno. We’ve been married for 55 years; we were â€œengaged [going out?] for 8 or 10 years. I have a son and a daughter. My son is 43 years old. He works with computers. He loves photography; motors. My daughter is in the accounting dept of a video games factory.