Rome, January 1943
As we went down in the cable car Luigi asked me… “Was that an adventure?”
“Yes,” I said… “that was definitely an adventure! By the way, did you know that they had all been trying to get into the young one’s pants? They watched open-mouthed when he went off with you!”
He smiled… “I guessed as much… he isn’t a virgin anymore… He was so nervous… We’d agreed that he was paying to have my bum, but he wasn’t able… nerves! So, we settled for me screwing him instead… He was definitely a virgin! He isn’t anymore!”
The Fosetti Brothers were waiting nervously for our return. News had already reached them of the Duce’s dramatic rescue. When the car drew up in front of the studio they came rushing out. I think they were looking for bullet-holes, blood and bandages. They couldn’t quite believe that we were back entirely unscathed. Luigi was the only one slightly wounded (the corporal had been a magnificent soldier), but he wouldn’t be asking the brothers for any special sympathy!
They wanted to know about the photographs… Had we got the ones the Badoglio official had asked for? “Yes, and no.” I replied. “The fascists and Germans took most of them. I have saved a few that the government can have… I guess they won’t be quite so interested in photos of Germans freeing the Duce. But… we do have quite a few for you… that neither lot know about!”
I handed them the Leica with its roll of 35mm film… thirty six shots for the brothers to sell to the highest bidder.
The brothers said “Oh yes! Photos by Fosetti Brothers’ War Photographer!”
So that’s how it came about…
The next day Tweedledum went to see a friend at the War Ministry and came back with my War-Photographer pass and a Press-pass.
I was now probably the youngest war photographer anywhere in Europe. My new role had the added advantage that the war was only twenty miles south of us. Twenty miles south of my warm bed, my even warmer Luigi, a hot bath and… even hotter food!
Life was good and getting better. It wasn’t yet two years since I was an illiterate goatherd in Calabria!
Luigi too was now a part of Fosetti Brothers studio. When we needed an extra pair of hands in the studio, at a client’s or in the darkroom… He was the one we sent for. He would gradually become a full member of our team.
That also meant that it was now his turn to be Fr. Barnabas’ project, to be taught to read and write.
We were together, and we had come a long way from the dry-stone wall in Calabria that had separated our flocks on the mountain.
My German… I really ought to stop calling him “my German”… While waiting for Skorzeny to sort out Mussolini, he told me that his name was Harald Christensen, a lieutenant in the Fallschirmjäger… a German paratrooper. He claimed descent from Vikings and was more Nordic than any SS man I ever met!
Harald then… appeared one Sunday early in January at the Tarpeian Rock. As promised I gave him my bottom for free. Later he wanted it again… he was truly magnificent. When he offered payment for the second time, I accepted… as a professional should.
We met quite a few times after that, and it was he who came closest to getting me killed… I was very nearly the youngest war-photographer to be killed in World War Two… a distinction I was happy to just miss out on… on more than one occasion!
It happened like this… The second time we met in Monte Caprino (and withdrew to a warmer bed in my apartment) he told me that his unit was now part of the Gustav Line… the defensive line that Kesselring had built to the south… right across Italy. He asked me if I would like to visit the line with him to take some photographs… to show the strength of the line.
Thinking about it later, I think the whole idea was stage-managed by his superiors. They wanted the strength of the line reported in the Italian newspapers. They hoped that it would be picked up by the Allies and would convince them that Cassino was even more impregnable than it actually was… and it actually was… pretty impregnable!
A German army driver picked me up at the studio and took me to the foot of the mountain. Harald was waiting for me and explained that the exposed mountain road was too dangerous for a vehicle… We would be strafed by fighters flying from airfields in the south. The Allies were concentrating their efforts on the area around Naples because that was as far north as their fighters could be sure of having reliable air superiority.
Although I was prepared for the sight of the vast abbey that covered the summit of Monte Cassino… I had called there two years earlier on my way from Calabria to Rome… it was still an astonishing sight! Over 1700 feet high and almost vertical on all sides, the abbey and monastery on the summit dominated the countryside… and had done so since the Sixth Century. The monks had told me that it was one of the most historic sites in Italy. St. Benedict had founded the Benedictine Order there in 529AD.
Harald said that the hill was now a central position in the Winter Line section of the Gustav Line on the western side of the Appenines. The Germans were well dug in and the hill dominated not just the nearby town of Cassino but also the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys. He said that although reconnaissance flights were too dangerous because of Allied fighters, the mountain gave observers as good a view as a plane could have… and they couldn’t be shot down… just strafed… and when that happened they had the rough crags and rocks to hide amongst.
As if on cue, Harald shouted “Get down… fighters!” He grabbed me and threw me behind a huge rock and then dived on top of me! I was about to make a joke about what it would cost him… when all hell broke loose. Suddenly I was glad he was there… my forehead was cut by flying rock splinters… and Harald was swearing… the splinters had stung his ass!
As suddenly as the noise had begun… it ended… and Harald was checking that I was alright.
It was sweet really… He seemed to have suddenly realised that I was only a boy, sixteen hoping to make it to seventeen! Perhaps it was orders or perhaps it was the afternoons in my bed… either way he was looking after me that day a great deal better than he would have if I had been any other photographer.
What neither of us realised was that we had chosen a singularly bad time to visit the mountain. The Allies were about to launch the first of the four assaults that it eventually took before they broke our line…
Did I say “our line”?
It’s complicated now and it was confusing then too. It felt right to be resentful towards the people strafing and bombing us… They had been doing it for the better part of three years, and it took more than Marshal Badoglio changing sides to make it feel right to be supporting the people who were actually trying to kill me… I had blood running down my face, from the cuts on my forehead, to tell me whose side the planes were on… I was pretty sure that it wasn’t mine. Harald was on my side… and Otto Skorzeny had been impressive!
I was confused… that was the only thing of which I could be certain.
When the skies cleared we continued our way up to the top of the mountain. We passed, and photographed, a number of concrete strongpoints. Harald said that they had been blasting with dynamite and casting concrete for the last three months.
He said… “When they look up at us they can’t see us… We’re hidden behind concrete and rock that we’ve had three months to prepare. When we look down on them we can see them trying to hide in foxholes in the rock… that they’ve had five minutes to scrape… it’s a shooting gallery!”
What surprised me was when we reached the abbey on the summit… There were no Germans. Harald was the only one there. There were a hundred or so Italians and a number of Benedictine monks and priests. They still had the mother-abbey of their Order to look after. They were planning to stay to the end.
Seeing my surprise at the lack of defences, Harald said that Field Marshal Kesselring had ordered that his men should not include the monastery itself in their defensive positions… because of the historical significance of the fourteen centuries old Benedictine Abbey. He had formally told both the Vatican and the Allies that the Abbey was not part of his defences.
Harald was keen that I should publicise the lack of defences on the summit. He was also keen to get his military uniform off the Abbey site… it wasn’t supposed to be there, and certainly wasn’t to be seen there.
I asked for the young priest who had looked after me during my previous visit, and was told that he was on a visit to Rome. I was sorry not to be able to introduce him to Harald and even sorrier that I couldn’t tell him that I was now a war-photographer… but there was always next time. Harald assured me that we would be back again soon. The mountain had a big role to play in the coming battle for Rome.
The countryside around us was where the fight for Rome would take place, because blizzards had made the Adriatic side of the Appenines impassable till the spring.
The geography and strategic problem were easy enough to understand… From Naples to Rome there were only two highways big enough to carry the Allied Army.
The Appian Way led into the Pontine marshes south of Rome… Those had been flooded by the Germans, and were now virtually impassable.
The other route ran through the Liri valley, whose southern entrance was dominated by hills that provided defensive positions and observation points. If they came that way the Allies would have to cross the fast flowing Rapido River… it came down from the Appenines, flowed through Cassino and continued to the sea.
Heavily fortified mountains, fast flowing river crossings and more flooded valleys would make conditions very difficult for the attackers, and… Monte Cassino was the key to it all.
The American Fifth Army reached the Gustav line in the middle of January. It had taken them six weeks to cover the last seven miles. Harald said they had suffered 16,000 casualties. They would need time to prepare for any new assault on the mountain, they ought to have a long period of rest and reorganization… after three months fighting every inch of the way north from Naples.
How wrong he turned out to be! What we didn’t know was that the date of the attack on the mountain was set by the plan for the landings at Anzio.
Our time had come… and we didn’t know it… yet!
Two days later, I was back in Rome with my photographs to process and print… and helping the Fosettis to sell them to the newspapers. I was a bit of a celebrity… the war photographer who only needed to shave once a week… and that to serve Mass… as an altar-boy!
Suddenly my photos were in demand… the British had attacked the Gustav line near the coast. We… I mean the Germans… were lucky to get away with it. What saved them was that the British seemed to lack reserves to complete their push.
There was a lot of rushing around. Kesselring sent two Panzer Grenadier divisions from Rome to reinforce the line where the British had achieved some success by crossing the Garigliano River. The line stabilised and Harald looked happier… he had time to visit me.
The rush to attack… supporting the landing at Anzio… was disastrous for the Americans. They had no time to clear the mines and traps on the Rapido river, no time to rehearse and… no time to get armour across in support. There was only so much a man with just a rifle could do… mostly it was just to die magnificently… and die they did.
An American regiment managed to penetrate a mile on our side of the river… At the end, there were only forty of their men left. The Panzer Grenadiers were well dug in and well prepared… with armour… Only a really well organised attack would have stood any chance of success… As a Panzer Grenadier major said while helping me photograph the battlefield afterwards… “This wasn’t a well prepared attack! They’ve lost over 2000 men… to no purpose!” He looked tired and sad… and magnificent on the newspaper front page next day!
I wrote a piece to go with the picture, about what he had said. I was now using my press-pass, and preparing short pieces of story to go with my photos… stories from the Fosetti War-Photographer, who two or was it now three years previously had been a goatherd in Calabria.
Time and events were now spinning past me… Two days later the Americans had greater success. They were better prepared and were able to ford the Rapido River, moving armour over the flooded valley floor on steel roadways, up into the hills. They were intent on attacking Monte Cassino from high ground. It took them eight days to push back the German infantry and establish a solid position in the mountains. I was able to photograph that week. I think that Harald held his breath for the whole week… boys believe they are immortal… their escorts know otherwise!
French-Moroccans thought that they could bypass Cassino completely, but once again the Allies ran out of resources and 2500 Moroccans were lost… again to no great purpose. My German friends could not believe their luck.
Meanwhile, in a single day I could travel to photograph these events… go back to the studio to develop and print them, and deliver them to the newspapers with my written piece for publication… and be ready to do it all again the next morning.
Fosetti Brothers was now a big-player in the war news business, and…I now had a by-line:
Carlo Tonelli, War Correspondent, Fosetti Brothers, Rome.
Life was beautiful… Each day I could go home to my bed and a good meal! This was my idea of a comfortable Italian style war… a war with style and Luigi!
I tried to avoid taking Luigi with me to the front… partly because I felt he was too young and too gentle to see what I was seeing… and partly because his youth drew attention to mine! I needed to be taken seriously… I needed to be able to get to the places where the best shots were found… even if some of them were rifle-shots!
I had a ding in the side of my helmet… most of the soldiers who commented on it assumed it had happened when it belonged to a previous owner! They were wrong… I was with the Panzer Grenadiers at the river crossing. It was extreme range… I had thought I was safe. The American sniper was lucky to hit my helmet… I was lucky that it was my helmet that he hit.
Actually, to many units I had become something of a mascot… as long as I was with them they felt safe. Mostly I felt unsafe, but I didn’t say so… they looked after me well, and I liked soldiers… particularly elite forces.
The Americans were now fighting their way along the mountain ridge towards the monastery, to drop down into the Liri valley to outflank the Gustav line. The Germans had made the going tough for them. Their positions were well prepared. while the Americans couldn’t dig foxholes in the stony ground.
The battle for Monte Cassino ground on. My escorts to the battlefield warned me not to dive into any gorse-filled ravines if fighters came over… “They’re filled with mines, booby-traps and barbed wire… they’re death-traps!”
The other thing in the favour of the defenders was the weather. It was now wet and freezing cold. It’s easier to stay dry in a well prepared defensive position than it is while trying to attack from behind a rock.
By early February the American infantry had penetrated as far as a hilltop 400 yards away from the monastery mountain itself. In fact some soldiers reconnoitring up the hill actually climbed as far as the foot of the walls. From where we stood on the monastery balconies I could watch the Germans firing up at them… what a sight! All attempts to take the mountain top were defeated by the machine gun nests in prepared positions on the hill side below us.
There were still no Germans in the monastery itself. Kesselring’s orders were still being obeyed. Despite the fierce fighting below I felt safe once I was in the monastery, even if the route to get there was getting increasingly dangerous.
All boys believe they are immortal, and it’s a good belief for a war-photographer too. Harald kept telling me to keep my head down. I would tell him that my helmet had “Press” stencilled on it… so they weren’t allowed to shoot at me! He just said I was crazy.
A week later, after a final attempt, the Americans gave up and withdrew. We all felt relieved.
I was still unclear which side of the war I personally was on.
It didn’t help that my family were south of the front. It meant they must have been at risk when the battle rolled past them. The chance of being killed should have been less than if they had been military… but that assumed that the soldiers were disciplined and… civilised.
I had asked Fr. Barnabas if he could use Vatican communications (via Geneva or Seville) to ask the priests in Calabria about the fate of my village. The answer came slowly…
There had been almost no village to reply. The new priest was dead, as were my parents and Luigi’s father.
The village had been desperately unlucky. The division that rolled over it were Goumiers, French-Moroccan troops… tremendously fierce, utterly fearless, and with not a shred of civilisation.
The reply actually came from my friend, the priest from the black-priest incident. He said that the Goumiers came from the Sahara. They were not Foreign Legion… well trained and disciplined, instead they were Berber-tribesmen. The French paid them almost nothing and left them to live off the country… seizing “booty” instead of wages.
Discipline in a European sense didn’t exist… and, booty included our women. My friend reported that my father and Luigi’s had been killed trying to protect their wives. Their wives were then… well, my mother had died. Apparently old-Maria had also died… and she was seventy four years old.
Barnabas had read the letter before passing it to me, so he was ready with a comforting arm as I sobbed. Life had been rough in Cosenza and perhaps I had been more than ready to leave, but these were my parents!
We agreed that we should not tell Luigi the whole truth… We told him later that his father had been killed but that his mother was safe. Maybe she would tell him the rest, but I suspected that the village would quietly suppress the memory of what had happened to its women.
I now had absolutely no reason to return to Cosenza… I make a donation to the priest’s charity each year and he tends to the family graves for me.
It was awfully difficult to remember that we were now on the same side as the Americans who bombed and strafed us, and on the same side as the French whose troops had raped and killed my family. To be honest I preferred the Germans.
My Panzer Grenadier friends were pleased with their victory, and that the line had held. They were now free to be rotated out of the line. Earlier… in the week before the attack, they had been about to be withdrawn and rested. They had been packing when the main attacks started. Instead of rest and recreation in Rome they had found themselves rescuing and reinforcing a weakened Gustav Line.
One result of the line holding, so that Germans could be released back to Rome was that business looked up for Luigi in Monte Caprini park.
I was too busy to find variety in the park, but I had Luigi and Barnabas, so I was happy enough. I also had Harald… we hadn’t had sex much recently, perhaps we now had camaraderie rather than love. He looked after me, and I repaid his support with glowing accounts of the Gustav Line.
Harald said that in his opinion Kesselring had a more intelligent plan than Clark, the US commander. Kesselring had separated his army into three commands… one general commanded the defence of Anzio and the other that of the Cassino section of the Gustav Line, while a third looked after the Adriatic side of the Appenines.
He said that the Americans had just Clark…. one commander, running hither and yon, trying to run a battle that was more than a day’s journey from one end to the other. If he dithered and acted too late… that was probably because it was already too late by the time he got round to things.
In our sector the American troops were now replaced by the New Zealand Corps including an Indian Division. They came from the British Eighth Army on the Adriatic front.
Peace didn’t last long.
It was on the 15 February, I was trudging up the mountain at Cassino when I heard the drone of heavy bombers approaching. We weren’t bombed so often as strafed. There tended to be little point in dropping 1000 pound bombs on a rocky hillside… so I wasn’t immediately worried. Fighters and strafing I worried about, they arrived low and fast. This time however the bombers were approaching directly towards us. At the very least they would pass overhead.
Harald and I were within shouting distance of the monastery, and we shouted and waved our arms, telling the civilians to get down to the cellars. They just shrugged… the monastery was well known to be a no-go area. No artillery or bombs had come near it since the battle started. They just stood there watching as the bombers approached. No doubt they were discussing where the planes were headed… perhaps Milan, perhaps Ploesti and the oilfields of Romania.
Then… it was clear where they were headed… home!
Their bomb loads were falling directly towards the monastery… while the bombers turned for home.
Harald and I had been running down the hillside for the last five minutes, and as we heard the first bombs whistling down we dived into a concrete machine gun nest and huddled as low as we could.
Apparently the American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of bombs on us that day.
We were relatively safe where we were. They were after the abbey… The bombing was very accurate, and we were protected by concrete. When peace returned Harald and I ran up onto the monastery platform… There was no longer a monastery… the Benedictine monks no longer had a mother-abbey for their order.
There were bodies everywhere... but we never found a soldier there. All the bodies were civilians who had taken shelter there because of its open non-combatant status. The bodies were civilians and a few monks… and a priest.
I found him as I walked through the ruins… He was sprawled on his back with the side of his head crushed… My young priest… I had waited too long! I knelt beside him, brushing the dust from his face. His eyes flickered open… he smiled momentarily.
Without stopping to think, I started to repeat the words of Extreme Unction… The Dom had explained in his last days that if no priest was available I could do it for him… it would be valid and could save his soul.
I Carlo Tonelli, sometime whore and goatherd gave that young priest the church’s forgiveness… its guarantee of entry to paradise…
I remembered what he had said two years earlier… outside the door of the dying farmer’s wife. So, I smiled down at him… no tears… no sadness. I held his hand and prayed while he entered paradise… This moment was his. I would have plenty of time to weep after he was gone.
There were no soldiers in the abbey… until the bombing stopped. Then they appeared up the slopes of the mountain, paratroopers with machine guns and mortars!
The mountain top was no longer an important architectural and religious gem, to be kept out of the war. Now it was a rubble strewn wreck of a site. A few pick-axes and shovels and it became an ideal defensive platform. The rubble provided much better protection from attack than the abbey ever could have.
It took just two days for Harald’s Fallschirmjäger to take up an almost impregnable position in the ruins.
Altogether the battle lasted from January to late May. During that time we… Monte Cassino and the Gustav Line were attacked four times by Allied troops. Finally, using twenty divisions and attacking along a twenty-mile front, the German defenders were forced out, but at a very high cost to the Allies.
Some of the fiercest fighting involved Polish soldiers… they were fighting to win back their country, whose invasion by Germany had started the war… their country that America and Britain had already secretly given to Stalin!
The Allies broke through the line and on May 18 they finally took command of the ruins on the mountain top.
I was desperately sad for the monks. It had been a beautiful abbey and the monks had looked after me well on my journey to Rome. There had been many… too many… familiar faces among the bodies we prepared for burial after the bombers departed.
Once through the gap, the Allied forces fanned out heading from Cassino straight towards the last line of hills before Rome. There they encountered Kesselring’s Caesar Line, stretching from the coast north of Anzio across to Pescara on the Adriatic.
Defence of the Caesar line was bedevilled by both a lack of resources and a lack of a reliable Axis command structure.
This became clear one afternoon when Harald was accompanying me on one of my “country-walks”… that was what I called them. Harald called them “reconnaissance patrols”. I was looking for things to photograph…. Tanks, guns or… even just pleasant scenery. I really was a photographer now… the photograph was more important than the thing being photographed.
We were walking on the Rome side of Monte Artemisio. The road wasn’t quite a coast road… we were a bit further inland than that. Harald and I were headed towards the Fallschirm-Panzerkorps Hermann Goering who were positioned between Monte Artemisio and Volmantone. We were puzzled because we hadn’t seen any infantry for a while and we weren’t due to meet the Panzers for another few miles.
Harald was becoming nervous! The front seemed to be entirely undefended!
That was when I took it into my head to wander off on a “country-walk”. I had suddenly realised that I knew where I was… I recognised the track and the countryside… I had walked this way a few years before when I was on my way from Calabria to Rome. This was the pleasantly athletic short-cut that the farmer had recommended… the track through the trees over Monte Artemisio.
I became quite excited and told Harald that there was a hidden track that led straight over the mountain. It was easily wide enough for soldiers, perhaps even for light mountain guns!
“Let’s go and see if the Americans have found it… no-one seems to be guarding it from this end!” I shouted over my shoulder as I set off at a fast trot!
I’m not sure now what I was setting out to do… I wasn’t interested in heroism… let’s face it I still wasn’t clear whose side I was on. Perhaps I was curious about the track but perhaps all I really wanted was to get high enough… If I reached the top I would have a panoramic view south over the heads of the advancing Allied armies. I should have an opportunity for some excellent photographs.
I was younger and fitter than Harald and in my haste he was left far behind. I wasn’t worried, the track was straight and clear, he would catch up eventually. I took a few shots of Castel Gandolfo and hurried on.
I reached the summit and the view south opened in front of me. A few miles away dust was rising and considerable noise as well. I had binoculars and looked down to see what was going on. The sight that met my eyes was astonishing… there was a huge bulldozer, cutting its way up the track towards me. Behind it was a column of tanks accompanied by infantry, moving steadily uphill where the track had been widened to a road by the bulldozer.
As I stood there a voice said… something in English!
Out of the trees came another photographer. He had his hand extended and I shook it…
“Joe Bonevito… Life magazine!” He said.
“Carlo Tonelli, Fosetti Brothers” I replied in Italian. He switched to a strongly accented version of Italian that made him sound like a cinema gangster…
“I said… Isn’t it a magnificant sight!” He said… in gangster Italian.
His jacket said “Press” in large white letters, the same message as was stencilled on my helmet. He offered me a cigarette… I accepted and offered him a share of my lunch. We sat in the sun, watching the bulldozer, still a few miles away. He was interested in my camera. It was much smaller than his.
“It’s German, a Leica.” I told him. He held his to show me… “Kodak… all-American. Gee those Germans make a neat little camera! ... did you loot it off a dead Jerry?” He asked.
“Certainly not! It belongs to my boss’s studio in Rome!” I said without thinking.
“Rome?” He said unbelievingly… “You came here from Rome?
We got no further… at that moment his military escort came puffing and blowing up the hill from below, just as Harald arrived slightly more dignified and fitter from the rear. The two of them looked with disbelief at the other’s uniform.
Joe said “Oh shit!”
I said “Mother of God!”