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Ravenna

Agnese’s house: women in the resistance movement

The junction where Senio river merges into Reno was, over time, a strategic location connecting  inland with the valleys and the Adriatic coast. In december 1944, many partisans came here to join the fight to free Ravenna. The farm, known today as “Agnese’s house” was chosen in 1975 by Giuliano Montaldo as location to shoot the movie “L’Agnese va a morire”, based on the novel by Renata Viganò with the same title and that in 1949 was awarded the Viareggio Literary prize. The author worked for the Resistance as a nurse, she had found refuge in Filo together with her husband, Antonio Meluschi, author and Partisan commander.

The story of a humble laundress who, hurt by the war slowly realizes the need to join the Resistance movement and then plays a key role in it is based on the personal experience of the author. The film, released in 1976, was very popular in Romagna because for the very first time the crucial contribution made by women to the liberation movement was finally taken to the silver screen.  

A review by Giovanni Grazzini described the film as follows: “The landscape is deeply moving: the Comacchio valleys sailed by silent boats and spoiled by the noise of firing. The depiction of the bitterly hard partisans’ life is effective, made of cruel fighting violence with the constant risk of ambushes.”

 

The Island of sea-buckthorns

At the time of the Second World War the area where today lies the Visitor’s centre was much wider and covered by thick wild vegetation dominated by  (Hippophae rhamnoides) sea-buckthorns from which the island is named.

In summer 1944 the partisan movement of Ravenna was made of five mobile units working underground mostly in the countryside.

As the allied troops were marching towards Ravenna a sixth unit was created, “Terzo Lori” named after a victim who died a few months before during a fight , in order to offer a safer shelter to those militants who had been too prominent and needed to hide away.

For the very first time a standing partisan outpost was set up in the valleys, equipped with a kitchen, a nursery, some indoor bedding and a radio station constantly connected since November with the allied troops.

In the beginning 160 partisans were assigned to the 28th Garibaldi Brigade “Mario Gordini”, later up to 600 fighters came to join the fight for the liberation of Ravenna, finally achieved on December 4, 1944.

The partisans used to leave the island at night, guided by experienced local boatmen, in order to attack the German convoys travelling through the Adriatic Road and the troops patrolling the oil deposits of Casal Borsetti.

Between November 19 and 23, from here began the decisive mission, headed by Commander Arrigo Boldrini, as known as Bulow, who met in Cervia the British officers of the VIII Army to agree upon the partisans actions. As a matter of fact, at the beginning of December they fought north of Ravenna to facilitate the Allied advance from the west and the south.

After exchanging 500 radio messages with the English and Canadian divisions, obtaining weapons and activating dozens of dispatch raiders on the ground, the partisans of the 28 unit fought against the Germans from the December 4 to 7 in the largest plain battlefield ever experienced by the local Resistance fighters, succeeding in protecting Ravenna and its valuable monuments.

 

The rescue of the Basilica of Classe

In November 1944 the Allied troops coming from Cervia along the Adriatic road are stopped by the targeted fire of the German artillery patrolling the Ravenna access points.

After breaking the right bank of the merged rivers and flooding the fertile countryside, the Wehrmacht soldiers conquer the plain area and check any suspicious movement from the 37 metre high bell tower of the Basilica of Classe, turned into a military checkpoint.

The Allied command wanted to unblock the situation and had already planned a bombing raid that would have certainly destroyed the basilica. Fortunately, the successful foray of some English sappers together with some fighters of the “Garavini” unit led to the cancellation of the raid and therefore the basilica was saved.

It was the night of November 19, 1944: a special unit of the British Porter Force, ruled by Major Wladimir Peniakoff, as known as Popsky's Private Army, preceded the advance of the 1st Canadian Division on board of large jeeps equipped with powerful machine-guns.

The local partisan fighters were collaborating with them under the leadership of the local deputy-commander. The partisan unit was co-led by a partisan who had been previously sent by the Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti di Ravenna to build some protection walls around the byzantine mosaics of the VI century AD.

The commando entered the church protected by the allied fire and silenced the German patrolling soldiers. Some of them fled away, others were arrested. The bombing and siege that had been originally planned were cancelled. The brave mission involving 35 voluntary fighters, including 9 local resistance fighters and 26 British raiders, was officially known only many years after the Liberation, thanks to the tales of Peniakoff’s soldiers. 

 

Ravenna: the price of the liberation

The final phase of the Second World War in the Romagna area was particularly painful.

After the liberation of Cervia on October 22, 1944 the Allied troops wanted to reach Ravenna and the Comacchio Valleys but it took them more than a month to travel those remaining twenty kilometers.

During their advance they were hindered not only by the landmines put by the Germans that made many victims among the civilians also after the end of the war, but also by the Savio and Bevano rivers that flooded the surrounding fields several times.

On November 5, during an allied air raid, the ancient Romanesque basilica of S. Maria in Porto Fuori, mentioned by Dante and decorated with fourteenth century frescoes collapsed and nine people died. Thanks to the collaboration started with the partisan units assigned to the 28° Garibaldi Brigade and the fighting plan agreed upon with Bülow, the allied troops could fight until December, when the remaining Italian front was stuck, and could reach the byzantine capital both from the south and the west without compromising its historic heritage.

In the meantime the Germans had set up a double defence line along the Lamone river and o the south along the Ronco and Montone Waterways in order to gradually withdraw and count on protected rear-guard.

Within that space, not far from there, close to the Madonna dell'Albero, after the first fights against the partisans and the Canadians, the Germans perpetrated the bloodiest civilian massacres in the Romagna area.

On November 27, 1944 the Wehrmacht soldiers killed 56 civilians from some dwellings along the “via Nuova”, after having killed the local priest, Father Mario Turci, guilty of having marked the German mines.

Only during the days after the liberation of Ravenna, on December 4, when the Allied finally crossed the Rocco and Montone rivers, the locals realized the extent of the massacre, retraced by the only survivor and by an inquiry made by the British.

 

The war front on Reno River and the 28th Garibaldi Brigade

At the beginning of December 1944, within the actions aimed at liberating Ravenna, according to the plans agreed upon with the partisan movement, the Allied troops were supposed to reach Sant’Alberto in order to conquer also the Comacchio valleys.

For this purpose and to back the advance of the Canadian troops, the partisans of the 28th Garibaldi Brigade had set up a secret base in the nearby Valli di Mandriole and also organized a patrolling unit made of about 200 volunteers coming from Alfonsine, the so-called “Wladimiro Column” that, after a few days of fight along the Reno reached Sant'Alberto on the morning of December 6, 1944 but stayed just a few hours.

Other militants that had control over the flooded areas stretching until the coast joined the partisans who waited in vain for the Allied troops with their armoured vehicles to arrive, the latter, after entering Ravenna, had decided to head north through the Adriatic road.

As a consequence the German counteroffensive was able to occupy again Sant'Alberto with some brutal retaliations and stop the Allied troops advance until January 5, 1945, when the Canadian soldiers of the 5 Armoured Division, led by General Foulkes reached the Reno south bank and finally liberated Sant’Alberto, but asked the population to evacuate.

The Germans had sent reinforcement troops from the rear-guard and tried to defend at alla costs those areas, which were of strategic importance to them. After several fights they had to withdraw and lost about 300 men, another 600 were captured as prisoners.

Over the next few days the partisans re-organized themselves: the men of the 28th Garibaldi Brigade, who had fought over the previous month, were sent along the new warfront along the Reno river on January, 12, 1945 and assigned to the V British Army Corp. After a week, they were officially designed as “Independent fighting unit” and armed with British weapons. On February 19, they were assigned to the “Cremona Group”, which belonged to the new Italian army. This move from underground fight to official war was a unique event in the history of the Resistance movement.

For some months the tactical base of the 28thBrigade was located in a farmhouse of Sant’Alberto: here came also the top Allied officers and on February 17, 1945 also the Kingdom Lieutenant, Prince Umberto of Savoy.

 

The coastal defence

In 1944 Ravenna is military occupied by the Germans, the city will be liberated only on December 4.

During the previous months the Germans patrolled the port and the mouth of the rivers, afraid of an allied landing likely to break through their defence lines in Romagna which had been slowly weakened by the Anglo-American attacks.

The shallow sea bed and the sloping sandy shores could be ideal for the subsequent landing of armoured vehicles and allied troops that the Germans had to stop at all costs.
The whole upper Adriatic sea was carefully patrolled, in particular the coastal stretch between Cervia and the mouth of Reno river was equipped with robust defence devices made of reinforced concrete built by Todt through Italia civilians supporting the German military activities.

The company was named after his founder, Engineer Fritz Todt who, before the war, had built in Germany motorways, bridges and other major infrastructure.

During the war years Todt recruited workers, initially paid, then forced to work under the threat of weapons. In order to check the horizon for possible landings, the port of Ravenna was equipped with several Tobruk-like bunkers, for two or more soldiers, basement turrets with a lateral emergency exit, and equipped on top with an anti-aircraft machine-gun and a mortar.

Sometimes proper casemates were built, up tp 16 metre long and 10 meter wide, with thick walls.

Fishermen activities were forbidden and any other civilian facility that could interfere was eliminated. Thanks to these defence positions a limited number of soldiers could patrol kilometres of coastline and major berthing places.
In order to hinder the advance of armoured vehicles the Germans built along the shores, namely behind the dunes, special fortifications called Dragon's teeth, square-pyramidal plinths of reinforced concrete, half-meter high and located close to each other to impede the movement of tanks and mechanised infantry.

They can still be seen today both in public and private areas, some of them were completely buried because they were too hard to destroy. Between Marina di Ravenna and Punta Marina there are the remains of 15 bunkers and a hundred of Dragon's teeth.

 

Texts by the Historical Institute of Resistance and Contemporary Age of Ravenna and its Province 

 

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