photo Archivio Biblioteca di Atina
Atina During World War II
During World War II the town of Atina had the misfortune of being situated just 14 kilometres from Monte Cassino, on the German side of the fortified Gustav Line. Thus Atina found itself engulfed in the long and ferocious Battle of Monte Cassino.
To understand the course of events that lead to the Battle of Montecassino I suggest first reading this …….
in order to get a fuller picture before reading more about the local events relating to Atina.
The German Occupation of Atina
On the 8th September 1943 Atina and the valley of the Ponte Melfa and Mollarino was invaded by the Baden-Württemberg 305ª Infantry Division of the Wehrmacht commanded by General Friedrich Wilhelm Hauck. By Christmas 1943 the 305th division was replaced by the 5th Gebirgjägers Division, from Bavaria and Austria, which specialized in mountain warfare. The division was first commanded by the Austrian general Julius Ringel and then by the end of February 1944 by General Max Gunther Schrank. These soldiers could be easily identified by the edelweiss insignia which was worn on their sleeves and on their caps.
In the Val di Comino there was also a company of SS Feldgendarmerie, a specialized body of the German military organization, specifically engaged in the search and raid of valid men to be employed in the construction of fortifications. By mid-November their headquarters was located in the area of Villa Latina.
The local people were fearful of how the German occupation would affect their lives. During the next few days Allied planes were spotted flying over the valley, which were carrying out aerial reconnaissance missions.
The German commander requisitioned the Palazzo of Alfonso Visocchi in Piazza Garibaldi and set up an important communications centre. The hospital, bank, school building, town hall and the barracks of the Carabinieri were also requisitioned for German use. All the wine cellars in the area, including that of the winery of the Visocchi brothers, were raided and emptied by the Germans who delighted in consuming their contents. The drunken soldiers were seen staggering around the streets in the night and until the early hours of the morning, firing pistol shots and throwing hand grenades to terrorize the local population.
On 10 October 1943 the Germans began to dismantle the rich machinery of the Visocchi Paper Mill; its machinery, over 4 thousand quintals of paper, abundant stocks of raw materials and metals were transported to Germany. The Cartiera was completely stripped and ransacked in just eight days, in the presence of the workers who had been employed there for many years. Inside the Cartiera the Germans organized a factory for the production of time bombs: they consisted of concrete balls of a suitable diameter containing explosives, which were then transported by truck to the front of San Biagio Saracinisco, along the narrow road of the Vandra, and then with the mules taken up on top of Mount Cavallo. From there they rolled the bombs, which then exploded against the enemy positions in an attempt to stem the advance of the Allies.
Atina occupied a strategic military position as it controlled the road linking the Val di Comino to Cassino. It was also an important supply route to the German front line, and was used to bring in fresh reinforcements of troops, provisions, materials, equipment and ammunition. Generally this was carried out during the dark of night.
Many of the local men were rounded up daily and forced to labour for the Germans at gunpoint. This work involved loading and unloading goods and ammunition, chopping down trees, transporting building materials and constructing roads and field fortifications.
During the occupation of Atina all personal radios were confiscated. The Germans committed several acts of violence and other atrocities. The soldiers regularly raided people’s homes at gun point and took any valuables, food supplies and building materials. Often they would come to seize animals from the local farmers and country folk, such as the locally bred Casertana pigs. If any of the owners offered any resistance this could often have serious consequences. Several unarmed civilians were shot during such incidents and there were also other senseless random shootings and acts of violence by the Germans. The peasants tried to hide their animals in caves. Others decided to kill their animals prematurely, before they had been fully fattened up for slaughter. When there were no more pigs the Germans hunted for cattle, sheep, goats and poultry. Thus within just a few months of German occupation, Atina’s rich animal husbandry was destroyed.
The Bombing of Atina
On the 19th October 1943 the first bombs were dropped on Atina by the Allies who were aiming for the bridge across the River Melfa. However the bombs failed to hit their target. One fell near the road known as La Costa. A couple hit the area close to the Cartiera and Contrada Guazzoli. Another fell near the old cinema in Ponte Melfa, but this failed to explode. On sunny clear days the Allies continued their air raids, targetting roads along the important German communication centres, supply routes and gun emplacements. However, many of the bombs failed to hit their targets and the citizens of Atina suddenly found themselves directly in the firing line. There was another bombardment on the 1st November, All Saints Day.
On the 5th November there was a mighty rumble as a large menacing squadron of flying fortress bombers darkened the sky over the valley from the direction of San Biagio Saracinisco. This was quickly followed by the deafening noise of the mighty explosions throughout the town. There was no time for anyone to run and try to find a place of safety. The people were left stunned and incredulous. The raid left a shocking scene of devastation. There were several dead and injured, many buildings and civil habitation throughout the town had been destroyed or severely damaged. There were huge bomb craters where the explosions had occurred.
On the 12th November at around 11am a formation of 18 bombers again dropped their deadly loads onto the town of Atina, which resulted in severe destruction, and many more fatalities and casualties. Many outlying areas of the town were also hit.
On the 13th December, on the feast of Santa Lucia, Atina was heavily bombed as the Allies tried to hit the bridge over the Melfa. There were several more casualties and fatalities. Atina was bombed yet again on the 28th December.
Thus the local people lived in fear of the blood curdling sound of the approaching bombers. Many decided to abandon their homes and sought to find places of safety on the hillsides above Atina. They trekked their way along steep and rocky mule tracks with just the few meagre possessions and supplies they could manage to carry. Some found shelter in old farmsteads or masserias, others in barns and shepherds’ huts on the slopes of Monte Cicuto, Monte Morrone, Monte Prato. Often many families would live together in one location. During air raids they would take cover in local caves.
In some areas, where there were no existing caverns to shelter in, they dug into the sandy rock to create places of refuge during the terrible bombardments. Other people chose to flee to the surrounding countryside within the valley or to other local towns where they hoped they would find safety.
From the mountains the townsfolk could observe each new wave of bombers releasing their deadly loads over Atina and the palls of black smoke rising from their beloved town. During some raids incendiary bombs were also jettisoned which set many of the buildings ablaze.
During the winter months, as the weather worsened, the refugees had to contend with heavy rain, icy winds and snow storms. They attempted to stave off their hunger with a meager diet consisting of beans, a type of flour made from acorns, and any wild greens and herbs that they could forage.
From the end of December the shelling by the Allies began. The Germans had installed anti-aircraft batteries on the slopes above Atina, close to where many civilians had set up camp. On the night of the 7th January the Allied Artillery heavily pounded this area with shells, causing many more casualties and fatalities. As it became clear that this area was no longer a place of safety the people were forced to move. Many headed for Casalattico and its surrounding hamlets. Hundreds of people gathered here, however a typhus epidemic spread within the community.
Soon the Allied artillery began heavily shelling this area too. The Germans had built a road from Ponte del Corno in Casalattico leading to the German front line via Mortale and Terelle. They had also installed a battery of anti aircraft guns near to Casalattico.
The Germans rounded up the townspeople of Mortale and they were taken to a German prison camp in Cesano, north of Rome. This was also the fate of the towns folk of San Biago Saracinisco.
The remaining destitute people were forced to keep on the move, constantly traipsing from one area to another, in search of places of refuge in areas further away from the German front. Kindly residents from the towns of Fontechiari and San Donato took in some of the refugees and shared their homes and provisions with them. In the Pianoro districe (Collealto) of Alvito a small settlement formed of displaced people, a small village where everyone tried to be useful to one another.
The Liberation of Atina By The Allies
On the 18th May 1944 the Allied Forces finally succeeded in liberating Monte Cassino after the many months of fighting. The Germans had already begun their retreat towards Sora and aimed to fall back to another defence line known as the Winter Line. Before moving out they had blown up the bridge in Ponte Melfa and planted many deadly land mines in the area.
New Zealand forces lead by General Freyberg, battled their way up from Cassino to the small village of Belmonte Castello and then headed onwards towards Atina. Any existing German soldiers were rounded up and taken prisoner.
New Zealand Cavalry in the Atina-Belmonte area. Photo by George Frederick Kaye, 30 May, 1944 – Archivio Biblioteca di Atina
New Zealand Division Cavalry following up the retreating enemy in the Atina-Belmonte area. Photo by George Frederick Kaye, 30 May 1944 – Archivio Biblioteca di Atina
At long last Atina was freed from German occupation by New Zealand troops on the 27th May 1944.
New Zealand soldiers arrive in Atina. Photo by George Frederick Kaye, 30 May 1944 – Archivio Biblioteca di Atina
The New Zealand Division set up Axis sign in Atina. Photo by George Frederick Kaye, 30 May, 1944 – Archivio Biblioteca di Atina
New Zealand Division sets up Axis sign in Atina. Photograph taken by George Frederick Kaye, 30 May, 1944. – Archivio Biblioteca di Atina
An muleteer with supplies for the New Zealand Division as it advances into the Atina area. Photograph by George Frederick Kaye, circa 1 June 1944 – Archivio Biblioteca di Atina
Refugees return to their homes as the NZ Division advances in the Atina area. Photo by George Frederick Kaye, circa 30 May 1944 – Archivio Biblioteca di Atina
New Zealand soldiers talking to refugees who have returned to their homes as the Division advances in the Atina area. Photograph taken circa 30 May 1944 by George Frederick Kaye – Archivio Biblioteca di Atina
The Ruins of Atina After The Bombing
The Ruins of Atina – Photograph taken circa 30 May 1944 by George Frederick Kaye – Archivio Biblioteca di Atina
The civilians were shocked and disorientated when they first saw the devastation of their precious little town that had been virtually razed to the ground. Many were eager to find out what was left of their homes, and searched amongst the rubble for any belongings that perhaps still remained. Some families found themselves totally destitute. The Allies wanted to relocate the homeless civilians to southern Italy, however this request was generally ignored. If their homes hadn’t been totally destroyed many families immediately began patching things up as best they could, such as rigging up a temporary roof under which to sleep.
The town had been devastated by the months of relentless shelling and bombing, leaving many areas of the town in ruins including Piazza Garibaldi, Via della Veduta, Piazza Veroli, Via Constantinopoli, Largo Trastevere, Via Giardino, Sant’ Anna, and the vie Grotte.
The buildings and sites destroyed included several churches and architectural monuments. The Church of Santa Maria and Chapel of San Marco were in ruins and the cemetery severely damaged. The roof and vaults of the Church of San Pietro had collapsed. A bomb had hit the cupola of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta and destroyed it, but the façade was still standing. The Chapel of the Congregation of San Carlo in Via Roma and the Church of Sant’Antonio di Padua near the Porta di Santa Maria were destroyed.
Several of Atina’s ancient palaces and important buildings were also severely damaged including the Palazzo della Propositura, the Palazzo Teodoro Mancini and the Asilo Infantile di Beatrice.
The entire infrastructure of Atina had been destroyed. Roads and bridges had been blown up. The newly constructed aqueduct was completely devastated, and also the sewers. There was no electricity supply.
Then on the 29th May a massive flood of Allied troops, military convoys and tanks flowed into the Val di Comino, churning up the terrain and destroying the countryside. The huge bomb craters caused by explosions filled up with rainwater which caused mosquitoes to breed rapidly causing an epidemic of Malaria. There was always the fear of treading on one of the deadly land mines that the Germans had planted throughout the area. These terrible devices claimed many innocent victims. There were little or no incoming food supplies and most of the surrounding fields were barren and scared by bomb craters. Unexploded bombs, arms and ammunition littered the Val di Comino.
A temporary German cemetery was sited in the Capo di Chino district between Atina and Belmonte Castello. Here there were around 150 graves of German / Austrian soldiers who were killed in the Cassino area, most of them were aged between 18 and 20 years old. The bodies interred here were later transferred to the large German Cemetery in the village of Caira, which is situated three kilometres north of Cassino.
34 innocent civilians of Atina died during the German occupation and there were many more injured and mamed during the bombing and shelling of the town and the surrounding area.
List of Civilian Victims Killed in Atina During World War II
Giacinto Bartolummuci, Cristina Bastianelli, Maria Bastianelli, Teresa Bove, Fortunato Bracciale
Cleto Caira, Ernesto Caira, Silvio Caira, Paolo Carbone, Orazio Coppola, Carmela Corsi
Lucia D’Annunzio, Enrico De Angelis, Francesco De Angelis, Mario De Ciantis, Vincenzo Del Prete, Giovanna Delicata, Michele Delicata, Angela Di Fiore, Giovanni Di Fiore, Rosina Di Fiore, Luigi Dragonetti
Pasquale Fasoli, Serafino Fortucci
Paolo Mancini, Cesare Mancini, Maria Cristina Marini
Arturo Petrilli, Germana Petrilli, Esterina Riccardi, Eva Riccardi Maria Rosati, Giovanni Marco Rossi, Lucia Rossi
Giuseppina Sabatini, Antonio Stisi, Domenica Stisi
Michele Tamburrini, Alberto Tavolieri, Angelo Tavolieri, Donato Tavolieri, Davide Torrice, Mario Torrice, Domenico, Antonio Torti, Franca Torti, Angelina Tortolani, Francesco Tortolani
Alberto Valente, Giovanni Valente, Filippo Vassalli, Domenica Vecchione, Orazio Vecchione, Adolfo Visocchi, Eugenio Visocchi, Mafalda Visocchi
Capocci Suor Adalberta
Ferrante Suor Giustina
Rosati Suor Maria
Also see – The War Memorial of Atina
Atina was awarded the Medaglia d’Argento al Merito Civile
“Comune siglato ai margini della linea “Gustav” ed a pochi chilometri da Cassino, occupato dalle truppe tedesche, subiva violenti saccheggi, devastazioni e continui bombardamenti che causavano la morte di numerosi cittadini, nonché la quasi completa distruzione del patrimonio edilizio. La popolazione, costretta a rifugiarsi nei paesi vicini, seppe resistere con fierissimo contegno agli stenti e alle dure sofferenze, per intraprendere, poi, la difficile opera di ricostruzione morale e materiale.” 1943/1944 – Atina (FR)
“A town situated on the edge of the “Gustav” line a few kilometres from Cassino, occupied by German troops, suffered violent looting, devastation and continuous bombardment that caused the death of many citizens, as well as the almost complete destruction of the housing stock. The population, forced to take refuge in neighbouring towns, was able to resist with fierce demeanor the hardships and the harsh suffering, to undertake, then, the hard work of moral and material reconstruction.”
The destruction, bloodshed, hardship and poverty caused by the war’s catastrophic and tragic events lead to a new wave of emigration overseas.
The Rebuilding of the Town of Atina After The War
The citizens of Atina who decided to remain worked tirelessly together to gradually rebuild their lives and rebuild and repair their beloved Atina. Over a period of many years the town has been reconstructed, however if you look very carefully many of the buildings still bear the scars of the bombing and shelling.
On the 18th October 1947 an impressive ceremony was held in Atina in the presence of civil and religious authorities. The works for the recovery of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta were finally completed, according to the project drawn up by Prof. Arch. Cherubino Malpeli and by Ing. Di Renzi. In particular, a new dome had been built and on this occasion an iron cross was to be installed on it, a symbol of faith and hope for peace. The following inscription had been engraved on the cross: “The fury of war that destroyed Atina from 9 September 43 to May 1944 very seriously damaged this bicentennial Cathedral”.
On that day, the parish priest Mgr. Arturo Di Cosmo, in the presence of a large crowd of faithful, had the unenviable task of being suspended about 36 meters high for the ceremony of the blessing of the cross. The bells rang out joyously, as if to invoke God’s blessing on Atina, which was resurrected, which wanted to live.
Interesting Reading – Books (in Italian) regarding Atina During World War II
Atina – La Chiave Che Non Apri in Fronte di Cassino by Italo Fortuna
Terrore Tedescho Nell’Italia Meridionale by Pietro Vassalli
My sincere thanks to Luciano Caira and Vincenzo Orlandi.
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Last Updated Oct 2018