When Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty – the ‘Scarlet Pimpernell of the Vatican’ – heard the massive explosion in Rome on the afternoon of 23 March, 1944, he knew he had to act quickly. Rome’s worst nightmare was about to begin, but one that, typical of the man, would have a compassionate ending, as PAT POLAND explains.
On 3 September, 1943, at the height of the Second World War, the Italian government surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. Shortly after, German forces began occupying Rome, and King Victor Emmanuel III and government officials fled to the south leaving the Italian army leaderless and in chaos.
Far from being the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had predicted, however, a terrible war of attrition ensued. But it was the news, on 22 January, 1944, that the Allies had landed behind enemy lines at Anzio, just thirty miles from Rome, that sent a wave of euphoria through most of the Roman populace.
Now, they thought, all they had to do was keep their heads down and wait for the day of deliverance from their Nazi oppressors, which surely must be soon.
Then, at precisely 3.45 p.m. on 23 March, 1944, a bomb exploded on the Via Rasella, not far from the famous Spanish Steps, the blast from which reverberated all over the city centre.
The Roman nightmare was only just beginning.
The news that the Allies were within striking distance of Rome had led to a dangerous relaxation of caution amongst members of the Resistance Movement, particularly the Communist Gruppo d’Azione Patriottica (GAP, or in English, Patriotic Action Group). They were determined to carry out a ‘spectacular’ action against the German forces, and had monitored the activities of the SS Police Regiment ‘Bozen’, made up of ethnic Germans from the northern Italian province of South Tyrol/Alto Adige.
They noticed that they marched along a prescribed route, singing as they went, on their way to a public swimming baths. Now, on the afternoon of Thursday, 23 March, the 156-strong column had exited the Piazza di Spagna and was marching through the narrow Via Rasella when a bomb, hidden in a refuse cart and triggered by a young medical student, went off.