It was early in October, 1944 and German troops in Italy had retreated to the Gothic Line deep in the heart of the Apennine Mountains between Bologna and the Po Valley. Hitler himself had ordered that the line be held at all costs to sever southern Italy from the industrialized north of the country.
Here German SS forces saw out the last winter of World War II, cold, depleted and tired , unable to advance and forbidden to retreat. It was here that the allies would break through in the spring and bring an end to the war in Italy.
And it was here during that final winter that the partisans harassed and attacked German forces with a vengeance. And it was here that the greatest yet little known massacre of civilians in Italy during the entire war would occur.
For, you see, the Waffen SS suspected the people of the small towns of Marzabotto, Grinzana Morandi and Monzumo of actively aiding the partisans. The Germans decided to eradicate the small towns completely.
The exact number murdered is unknown though 770 names are listed on the monuments. Estimates have ranged as high as several thousand. SS Sturmbannfuhrer Walter Reder led the 16th Panzergranadier Division Reichsfuhrer SS in the killing of men, women and children.
It was an exceptional atrocity as the towns were completely “cleansed”. Nazi soldiers literally marched into these towns and exterminated every living thing, the elderly, women, children and babies with machine guns and hand grenades.
Residents were divided into two groups of no particular order – half were murdered that day and the remaining populace the following day. In between murders the SS troops had lunch and dinner.
The monument to the Marzabotto massacre lists the names of 315 women, 189 children under ten, thirty youngsters between 12 and 18, 161 men between 18 and 60 and 76 men over 60 years old. They killed them all. Men. Women. Children. Babies. Priests. One priest was murdered for burying the dead.
On October 4 after executions had already started anew, a group of soldiers appeared out of nowhere. They been on patrol and were unaware of the killings when they stumbled into the on-going atrocity. They immediately engaged the SS.
After furious fighting the Germans were successfully driven off, back behind the Gothic Line, saving the few remaining in the towns.
That group of saviors was from the 6th Armored Division of South Africa.
At the memorial with the triangle emblem of the 6th South Africa
It was the South Africans who were the first to arrive in the area. Some three days later would come British, American, New Zealand, Australian, Rhodesian and Indian troops. They brought food and supplies, doctors for the afflicted and set up camps.
Each year the people of the region gather to celebrate their liberation (some survivors are still alive) and celebrate South Africa, raising the South African flag. The towns hosted Claudio Chiste, Chairman of the South African Legion of Military Veterans in 2017 at the dedication of a mausoleum, plaque and a new highway named in honor of the 6th South Africa by a grateful populace.
Sturmbannfuhrer Reder at his war crimes trial in 1948
Reder was extradited to Italy in May 1948 for war crimes. He was tried by an Italian military court in Bologna and sentenced to life imprisonment at Gaeta fortress prison, on the coast north of Naples, in October 1951 for ordering the destruction of town of Marzabotto and other villages during so-called anti-partisan sweeps and for ordering the execution of 2,700 Italian civilians in Tuscany .Emilia during the same period.
Reder was paroled in January1981 after 33 years in prison and returned to Austria. He died in 1991