The Detonation of the Bridges of Florence and German Atrocities in Wartime Italy During World War Two

Peter Curry

4 mins

29 Oct 2018

The Nazis occupied Florence for around a year, from 1943 until 1944, as a result of Italy’s exit from the war in 1943. As the German army was forced to retreat up through Italy, it formed a final line of defence in the north of the country, along what was originally called the Gothic Line.

Hitler ordered that the name be changed to the less imposing Green Line, so that when it fell it would prove less of a propaganda coup for the Allies.

The retreat from Florence

In the summer of 1944, there was a great fear in the city that the Nazis would ravage the city, and in particular detonate the Renaissance bridges across the River Arno.

Despite frantic negotiation with the Nazis by high-ranking members of the city council among others, it seemed that the Nazis were intent on the detonation. They believed it would slow the Allied advance, and was thus a necessary step in the defence of the Green Line.

A battle map showing the German and Allied battle lines during Operation Olive, the Allied campaign to take Northern Italy. Credit: Commons.

On 30 July, everyone living along the riverbanks was evacuated. They sought shelter inside a massive palace that had been the ducal seat of the Medici. The author Carlo Levi was one of these refugees, and he wrote that while

“everybody was busy with immediate things, nobody could stop wondering what would happen to their besieged city.”

The archbishop of Florence led one committee of Florentines to argue with the Nazi Commander. Swiss consul Carlo Steinhauslin noticed stacks of boxes that he believed contained explosives destined for the bridge.

Daniel Lang wrote a piece for The New Yorker explaining that “Florence… was simply too close to the Gothic Line,” for the safety of its art and architecture to be preserved.

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The commander of the German defence in Italy, Albert Kesselring, had calculated that the destruction of the Florentine bridges would give the Germans time to retreat and properly establish defences in Northern Italy.

The demolition

The demolition of the bridges was felt throughout the city. Many of the refugees sheltering in the Medici palace heard tremors and began shouting, “The bridges! The bridges!” All that could be seen over the Arno was a thick cloud of smoke.

The last bridge to be destroyed was the Ponte Santa Trìnita. Piero Calamandrei wrote that

“it was called the most beautiful bridge in the world. A miraculous bridge by [Bartolomeo Ammannati that seemed to summarise in the harmony of its line the apex of a civilisation.”

The bridge was supposedly so well built that it needed extra explosives to destroy it.

One German officer involved with the destruction, Gerhard Wolf, ordered that the Ponte Vecchio should be spared. Before the war, Wolf had been a student in the city, and the Ponte Vecchio served as a precious reminder of that time.

A British Officer surveys the damage to the intact Ponte Vecchio on 11 August 1944. Credit: Captain Tanner, War Office official photographer / Commons.

The Florentine council later made the questionable decision to honour Wolf’s decision to spare the ancient bridge, and Wolf was given a memorial plaque on the Ponte Vecchio.

Herbert Matthews wrote in Harper’s at the time that

“the Florence that we and successive generations of men since the days of the Medici knew and loved is no more. Of all the world’s artistic losses in the war, this one is the saddest. [But] civilisation goes on … for it lives in the hearts and minds of men who rebuild what other men have destroyed.”

The massacre of Italian partisans

As the Germans retreated, many Italian partisans and freedom fighters launched attacks on German forces.

German casualties from these uprisings was estimated by one German intelligence report at around 5,000 dead and 8,000 missing or kidnapped German forces, with a similar number grievously wounded. Kesselring believed that these numbers were heavily inflated.

An Italian Partisan in Florence on 14 August 1944. Credit: Captain Tanner, War Office Official Photographer / Commons.

German reinforcements, working with Mussolini’s remaining forces, crushed the uprising by the end of the year. Thousands of partisans died, along with many civilians and prisoners of war.

German and Italian fascists committed vast reprisals across the country. This included the summary execution of partisans in cities like Florence, and resistance captives and suspects were tortured and raped.

German forces, often spearheaded by the SS, Gestapo and paramilitary groups such as the Black Brigades, perpetrated a series of massacres through Italy. The most heinous of these included the Ardeatine Massacre, the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre, and the Marzabotto massacre.

All involved the shootings of hundreds of innocents in reprisals for acts of resistance against the Nazis.

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Men, women and children were all shot en-masse or penned into rooms into which hand grenades were lobbed. The youngest to die at the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre was a baby less than a month old.

Eventually the Allies did break through the Green Line, but not without heavy fighting. In one critical battlefield, Rimini, 1.5 million rounds of ammunition were fired by Allied land forces alone.

The decisive breakthrough came only in April 1945, which would be the final allied offensive of the Italian campaign.

Header image credit: U.S. Department of Defence / Commons.