The Casentino valley, located in a crucial area of the Gothic Line defence system, found itself fully involved in war operations beginning in the winter-spring of 1943-44. It also saw the spontaneous emergence of numerous rebel formations that exploited its mountainous, richly forested terrain. To rid the Casentino and the province of Arezzo of rebels, the Wehrmacht carried out numerous roundups and massacres in the area, assisted by the collaborationist forces of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana. As we shall see later, their aim was to repress the partisan movement and terrorise sympathising civilian inhabitants who clearly nurtured strong anti-fascist sentiments.
In the Casentino and the province of Arezzo, the “forty-five days” after the fall of fascism gave rise to a mood of optimism as people looked forward to a rapid advance of the Anglo-American troops. The armistice of September 8th 1943, the disbanding of the Italian army, the liberation of Mussolini, the rebirth of a fascist collaborationist state in mid-September, and the ensuing delays drove many to abandon their wait-and-see attitude and create the first armed formations.
In the provincial capital, Arezzo, a Comitato delle Opposizioni was established. It was soon transformed into the Comitato Provinciale di Concentrazione Antifascista (CPCA), made up of the five main parties of the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (CLN). Following the instructions of the CPCA, after September 8th 1943 the first partisan groups began to assemble on the slopes of the Catenaia Alps and in the upper Casentino, thickly-wooded, mountainous areas that were particularly suitable for their ends. These groups were made up of men from Arezzo and other valleys in the province, as well as from the Casentino itself. They included elderly anti-fascist militants of socialist, communist, or catholic leanings; a handful of members of the Partito d’Azione, of liberal-socialist and republican origins; former soldiers, draft dodgers and even some escaped prisoners of war who formed bands including many Slovenians, especially on the heights of the Catenaia.
Very soon an organised fighting group came into being in the upper Casentino. The first partisan nucleus to be formed in the Arezzo province, it went by the name of Formazione Vallucciole. It consisted of just under a hundred men and was a reference point for the other local bands. Taking advantage of the relatively inaccessible, thickly-wooded terrain of Monte Falterona, it aimed initially at sabotaging German transport and hampering the reorganisation of the fascists.
The stalemate on the southern Italian front, due to extremely fierce fighting along the Gustav Line at Montecassino and to the partial failure of the Allied landing at Anzio in January 1944, meant that the operations of the Casentino and Arezzo partisan formations decreased radically in the winter but without ceasing altogether.
However, during the spring, in March and April 1944, the rebel movement gradually regained strength and saw a tenfold increase in its members. With each new call to arms in the Republican Army, the ranks of the partisans grew. Instead of joining the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana, young men flocked to the mountains. Spring thus saw innumerable attacks by partisan formations from the Casentino or other groups stationed in the mountains and woods of the valley. Their actions were carried out with great mobility, making it hard to assess the precise number of rebels. Towards the middle of March, however, the first massive nazi-fascist roundups were begun in the Casentino (in Vallesanta, in the municipality of Chiusi della Verna and in the Monte Falterona area). The aim was to clear the area of partisan bands and start work on the Gothic Line fortifications. The extremely harsh reaction of the occupying army and the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana meant that the Casentino, where the partisan movement had grown significantly, was directly exposed to the brutality of reprisals, roundups and massacres.
Having failed in their project to encircle and destroy the partisan forces operating in both the Tuscan and Romagna flanks of the Tuscan-Romagna Apennines by means of a major mopping-up operation, the nazi-fascists adopted the alternative strategy of putting the Casentino to fire and sword and carrying out systematic massacres of the civilian population. Since it was close to a section of the Gothic Line fortifications and given that numerous partisan formations were active in these areas, the Casentino paid a very high price in terms of reprisals, massacres and deportations.
The aggressive tactics adopted by the Wehrmacht even while retreating (the so-called “aggressive retreat”) was a direct consequence of the slow, uncertain advance into Tuscany of the British 8th Army and the American 5th Army from Lazio. The Americans were stalled on the Arno Line until August and slowdowns also occurred on the Trasimeno Line. The result was that a good many municipalities in the north-eastern part of the Arezzo province (and thus the whole of the Casentino) found themselves in a sort of no-man’s land, trapped between the retreating German army and the slowly advancing Allied forces. The valley below a supposedly impregnable fortified mountain system was an ideal situation in which to implement the method of terror theorised and practised by Kesselring.
During the next five months the valley was set ablaze. There was a resurgence of the rebel movement, which had overcome its winter crisis and was now able to increase its members tenfold, thanks partly to the growing number of men evading the republican draft. It was thus able to multiply its actions and assaults. These were answered with massive nazi-fascist sweeps in Vallesanta, in the municipality of Chiusi della Verna and in the Monte Falterona area, with the dual aim of speeding up construction work on the Gothic Line and, at the same time, of “cleansing” the area of the bands. The tragic “Easter of Vallucciole” with its 108 victims, including women and children, was one outcome; others were the massacres of Partina, Moscaio di Banzena and Badia Prataglia (a total of 41 deaths). On June 14th and 15th it was the turn of Chiusi della Verna where ten people were killed, on the 20th twenty men lost their lives in Montemignaio, while on the 29th, in Cetica (near Castel San Niccolò), thirteen civilians were shot in conjunction with what came to be known as “The Battle of Cetica”, a conflict between the partisans of the 23rd Brigata Lanciotto of Pratomagno and a battalion of the 3rd Brandenburg Regiment of the Wehrmacht.
Nor did it end there. The tragic sequence continued throughout the next two months. After the liberation of Arezzo on July 16th 1944, with the front line now nearing the Casentino, the German forces made a violent sweep of the entire Pratomagno mountainside, carrying out numerous massacres, deportations and mass displacements. These began on July 11th in Quota (5 victims), continued on the 25th in Moscaio and Lagacciolo (25 dead), and in Montemignaio again on September 4th (2 dead). On September 10th it was the turn of Pratovecchio (4 dead). On August 6th more than a hundred men were deported from Castel San Niccolò and more than a hundred and fifty from Poppi. On September 7th in Moggiona, a hamlet in the municipality of Poppi, after the retreating Germans had ordered all the inhabitants of the village to evacuate to the Romagna flank of the Apennines, nineteen civilians (who had remained behind, TN)—old people, children, and young women (most of whom had been raped)—were slaughtered. The people of the Casentino left a veritable trail of blood on their land. This was the price paid, on the one hand, to the slowness of the German retreat, which took far longer than their withdrawal after the fall of Rome. Indeed, as we have seen, their retreat had become “aggressive”. To give just one example of this anomaly: while Bibbiena was “liberated” on August 28th, Pratovecchio and Stia, less than 15 kilometres to the north, were not freed until September 24th, almost a month later. On the other hand, the slowness of the German retreat was matched by the slow advance of the Allied forces. These had been held up on the Trasimeno Line and above all at Lignano, and were now suffering the effects of the opening of the “second front” in southern France. All this turned the upper reaches of the Arno into a veritable “cul-di-sac” battered by a “perfect storm” during the spring and summer of 1944.
It is worth repeating that the presence of the Gothic Line in the Casentino had the same effect, all things considered, as the presence over many months of an actual military front line. There were no major war operations in this area between the German and the Allied armies, whereas in the east the front line broke through the German barriers along the Adriatic after fierce fighting, and in the west, in the province of Florence, the barriers were breached by the 5th Army. Nevertheless, the months preceding the Liberation were, as we have seen, harrowing ones for the inhabitants of Casentino. The Allied breach of the Gothic Line in Rimini during Operation Olive (launched on August 26th 1944), and the breach of the Arno Line in Florence, led to the Wehrmacht’s withdrawal into northern Italy (where there would be another harsh winter of war). This probably prevented the Casentino from becoming an area of direct confrontation between two armies and seeing an even more tragic impact on the populations and villages. Suffice to think of what had happened a few months earlier at Montecassino and what might have happened at Camaldoli, the monastery founded by St Romuald in 1012.
The months of August and September 1944 thus saw the war drawing to its close. The Arezzo and Casentino partisan groups, which until then had operated on Pratomagno and in the upper Arno valley, began to move up the valley from the south, preceding the advancing armies and occupying various towns and villages until the arrival of the Allied troops. Thanks to the actions of these armed formations, it was possible to liberate the whole valley during the months of August and September. On August 28th, as we have seen, Bibbiena was liberated, on September 2nd Poppi, on September 8th Strada in Casentino, and on September 24th Stia and Pratovecchio.
One more point is worthy of our attention. During the months of war in the Casentino the religious orders displayed great human solidarity towards the civilian population of the valley. Under the nazi-fascist occupation, the Sanctuary of La Verna and that of Santa Maria del Sasso in Bibbiena, together with the Monastery of Camaldoli (located in the heart of the Gothic Line), gave refuge to hundreds of families, saving them from being rounded-up and deported by the retreating Germans. Nor was this all. In addition to providing safe havens for individuals, the parish churches and convents often hosted clandestine meetings of the CLN, as well as housing caches of weapons and even recruitment centres for the Resistance. In fact, in January 1944, the Political Investigation Office of the 96th Legion of the RSI reported on “subversive and anti-national” activities carried out by the Camaldolese monks and the Franciscans of La Verna.
As the front line approached in July-August, the Sanctuary of La Verna became an oasis for the surrounding population, as did the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Sasso in Bibbiena, which was particularly active in assisting partisans and the population in general. The Monastery of Camaldoli, in the municipality of Poppi, performed a similar function to that of the other two spiritual centres. Among other things, the Monastery was located in a key position for the development and extension of the defence system of the Gothic Line.
The Camaldoli Monastery was not only of primary importance in protecting the local population, but also in safeguarding numerous crates containing works of art removed from the great Florentine museums. These works were temporarily housed in the Monastery after October 1940 so as to protect them from possible war damage should Florence come under Allied bombardment. Camaldoli was not alone in this. Two other locations in the Casentino were used to conserve Florentine works of art during the war: the Conti Guidi Castle in Poppi, and the Villa of the Bocci family in Soci, in the municipality of Bibbiena. The Casentino valley, racked as it was by the war and the nazi occupation, thus gave sanctuary to an immense deposit of works of art exposed to all kinds of danger.
Alessandro Brezzi, Poppi 1944. Storia e storie di un paese nella Linea Gotica, published by the Associazione Nazionale Combattenti e Reduci – Sezione di Poppi, Quaderni della Biblioteca Rilliana N.°38.