No. 334  NAI DFA Secretary's Files P12/8

Letter from Michael MacWhite to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)
(Personal and Confidential)

ROME, 14 October 1943

So many things of world import have happened here during the last three months that, single-handed, it has been quite impossible to keep tally on them. The sudden fall of Mussolini followed soon afterwards by negotiations for an armistice and the flight of the King and Government from Rome brought in their train the German occupation of Italy. Then came the Allied landing at Salerno which might well be compared with that at the Dardanelles in 1915 with disastrous consequences of a similar nature. Eight days earlier the landing might have been made without much difficulty at almost any point of the Tyrrhenian coast but the policy adopted, according to the B.B.C., of leaving Italy stew in her own juice will turn out to be a very costly one in the long run. While this stewing process was going on, German Divisions were pouring into Italy, disarming the Italian forces and seizing the principal strategical points on the Peninsula.

The German occupation of Rome took place after three days fighting in the suburbs. The Italian soldiers were short of munitions, had little food and no co-ordinated leadership, so the matter of rounding up the four or five thousand who resisted was not a very serious affair. The first units of the German forces that arrived were said to have belonged to the Gestapo. Though few in numbers they were able to inspire fear by their formidable equipment and domineering manner. They were not, by all accounts, very scrupulous as to their behaviour. I have heard from several sources that they deprived many persons of both sexes of their watches, money and jewellery. There was carried out officially the pillage of some villas and palaces of the wealthy. The paintings and valuables of the Venetian Palace which, as I informed you some time ago, were stored for safety in the Irish Augustinians Summer College at Genezano were taken away by the Germans. They wanted also to occupy the Villa but Father Magrath offered effective resistance. When he submitted a letter of 'protection' that I had issued to him they finally desisted. A detachment of about 200 men are still encamped in the immediate vicinity of the Villa.

Three or four days after their arrival in Rome the German authorities approached the Chief Rabbi and requested that the Jewish Community furnish them with 50 kilogrammes of gold within twenty four hours otherwise 200 of their youth of both sexes would be sent to Germany as hostages. As nearly all the wealthy Jews had already left the city it was difficult for them to get so much of the precious metal together at such short notice. The Vatican however came to their aid to make up the deficiency. Notwithstanding, a few days ago, all the Jews of Rome, male and female, were arrested and are now interned in a military barrack, awaiting deportation to Germany. It appears the Pope protested to the German Ambassador to the Holy See against the arrest and deportation of Jews who were the result of mixed marriages or who had been baptised. Before this final stroke fell, many Jews were able to be sheltered by humane Italian families or by religious institutions.

I am annexing hereto the Death Notice column from the Messaggero of October 9th, which is self explanatory. As all Italian newspapers are under German control the Censor apparently paid little or no attention to such advertisements. In the first, a woman was shot dead while trying to save her son from being dragged off to the Labour Camps in Germany; in the second a University Professor died suddenly and suspiciously; in the third instance a University student was shot dead because another youth who was working with him, for the Germans, escaped. When these three notices appeared on the same day by coincidence one may form a fairly good guess at what is actually happening in the Holy City.

The Director of the Bank where we keep our account told me the following:Before evacuating Naples the Germans wanted to take all the ablebodied males with them. When they called to collect the staff at the Head Office of the Banca Commerciale they found only men of sixty and over which caused them so much disappointment that they decided to take the lot as hostages. They were all packed into a Goods Wagon for transport to Germany, but so tightly that it was quite impossible for them to move. This Wagon was attached to a north bound train and the third day after, it was slipped into a siding outside the Rome station until it could be hitched on to another train. Here some linesman who heard the moaning succeeded in opening the wagon and released the human freight in a condition that is better imagined than described.

The day following their arrival in Rome, all the gold in the Bank of Italy was seized and sent to Germany for safe keeping. Likewise, all the paper and machinery for the printing of Italian Bank notes. For the hotels, houses, garages, etc. they have requisitioned here the Germans pay very good rentals as the Italian money only costs the labour employed in the printing. Italians themselves realise how little it is worth. In fact, they figure out prices more in accordance with the Allied exchange rate in the South, of 500 lire to the pound. I have heard that eight hundred lire can be obtained here for a pound note. Controlled prices of foodstuffs and medicines have been increased by 25% and wages have been officially raised by from 30% to 50%. This is only a bare indication of the trend of things. The 'black market' which always flourished here has now considerably extended its scope, mainly because of the suppression of the Carabinieri and the Municipal police force. The new police recruits are a miserable looking lot in whom the people have little confidence.

The release of Mussolini caused a mild sensation. For weeks he had been transferred from island unto island in the Tyrrhenian Sea until the Germans made an attempt with a fast Motor launch to rescue him from Maddalena, an island lying at the northern tip of Sardinia. Then, he was taken inland and lodged in an abandoned Winter sports Hotel on the Gran Sasso, 8,000 feet above the sea level, and about 100 miles N.E. of Rome. Within a few days the Germans learned of his whereabouts and sent an Airplane with half a dozen parachutists to rescue him. The guards who were taken completely by surprise offered no resistance. It seems he was taken to the neighbourhood of Munich where the Führer made an effort of cordiality in welcoming him although the bitterness of their separation at Feltre, two months previously, must have been still rankling in his mind. After a couple of days rest he was flown back to Northern Italy to become the nominal Head of a new Government without either authority or influence.1 During the past couple of years he has been suffering from a disease which he is said to have contracted in North Africa. This has caused frequent fits of depression which have, no doubt, been aggravated by the changes in the Italian war situation after El Alamein as well as by the defection of many of his former lieutenants. Even if he were mentally and physically fit, it is unlikely that he could ever again command the loyalty and support of any considerable following. In our time, miracles are few and far between. The dead cannot be resuscitated.

[initialled] M. M.

1 The Republic of SalÚ, established on 15 September 1943.


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