(July 1943 – Sicily)
A six-wheeled Mercedes convertible sat parked atop of a hillock near the city of Gela. From a standing position in the driver’s side of the vehicle, Oberstleutnant Karl Meitner slowly lowered his field glasses, letting them dangle from the strap around his neck. He removed the leather glove from his left hand and massaged his eyes with the thumb and second finger, then slowly shook his head and sighed equal parts frustration, sorrow, and resignation.
Over a quarter-million soldiers had been deployed to defend the island against an inevitable Allied invasion. However, of the thirteen divisions, only four were German. And although those four included the crack 15th Panzer Grenadiers and the Hermann Goering Panzer Division, they would not be able to repulse the attack alone.
The question had always been, “Would the Italians fight?” The Abwehr, German Counterintelligence, had sent Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Meitner to Sicily to answer that question.
# # #
He had had his doubts from the first day of his arrival a month earlier. Oh, the battle plans had been splendidly drawn—on paper. And General Alfredo Guzzoni felt very secure in his Italian Sixth Army Headquarters near Enna, in the center of the island. In fact, the general teemed with braggadocio about the battle-worthiness of his troops, who, he boasted, would fight to the last man if Il Duce so ordered. Colonel Meitner had snorted contemptuously to himself when he had heard that bold pronouncement. Fight, indeed, he had thought. Fight to the last German, no doubt.
It had been the little things. The look of defeat had already settled into the Italian soldiers’ eyes. But what really bothered the Colonel, above all else, was the fact that the soldiers didn’t seem the least bit shamed. If one looked deeper into their eyes, and Karl Meitner was practiced at doing precisely that, behind the look of defeat, he detected relief.
Moreover, the Italians’ handling of the partisan problem could only be described as halfhearted at best. Oh, to be sure, perpetrators of blatant acts of sabotage found themselves imprisoned in the garrison, if caught in the act, but nothing of a preventive nature was being effected. The Italians declined to conduct mass reprisals similar to those the Germans levied on the French, Poles, and Slavs. No lessons were being taught to other would-be terrorists except that the price of getting caught was a prison cot and three meals a day. War or no war, Sicilian partisan action was viewed as a dispute between cousins and the Italian Army adamantly refused to participate in genocide against its own.
The dinner party Colonel Meitner had attended three nights prior to the invasion had been a confirmation of all his doubts. “Dinner party”—the Colonel found it a poor choice of words. It had been a lavish grand ball. Held at Il Castello Rimini, a medieval fortress on the northern slope of Busambra Mountain overlooking the town of Villafrati, it had been hosted by la Contessa Sophia Campi, the young widow of Conte Pietro Campi.
Colonel Meitner had watched, horrified, as high-ranking Italian officers, decked out in full-dress uniforms with braid and medals—medals bought rather than won, the Colonel suspected—had fawned over la Contessa. With their tongues loosened by glass upon glass of wine, they had discussed the most sensitive of military preparations with the countess as if she were either a trusted advisor or merely a naive, unworldly hausfrau.
From closely observing her at the festivities, the Colonel judged the noblewoman to be neither naive nor unworldly— nor, most certainly, a woman to be trusted.
Dressed in a brocade formal gown, the radiant and beautiful Sophia had flitted about like a white and gold butterfly. Around her neck, she had worn a single twenty-five-carat rose-colored diamond, the famed Isabela Pendant, as her only jewelry. The necklace had been a gift from His Royal Highness, Umberto, Crown Prince of Piedmont, for services rendered in the bedroom, or so the story went.
Although the countess’ voice and actions had made her appear to be laughing and joking and flirting with all of the officers in turn, her dark brown eyes, nevertheless, had not laughed nor joked nor flirted. It was those eyes that had most interested Karl Meitner as he silently watched the near-orgy take place. The eyes never lie. And that night, la Contessa Sophia Campi’s eyes had told the Abwehr Colonel that here at Il Castello Rimini he would find a headquarters, if not the headquarters, of the entire Sicilian resistance movement.
Karl had filed his suspicions away. His Italian brothers-in-arms would never have believed him. But there will come a time, he had thought, when acts of treachery will be repaid in full measure.
# # #
Colonel Meitner removed the strap of his field glasses from around his neck and rudely tossed the binoculars onto the passenger seat of the staff car. He slid behind the steering wheel, regloved his hand, and resignedly started the engine. He had seen enough.
Patton’s Seventh Army had come ashore from the Gulf of Gela on the southern coast of the island. Part of those forces had been engaged east of the city by the German Hermann Goering Division and the Italian Livorno Division. The German tanks were pushing toward the coast road about one mile from the sea. However, the Livorno Division had been repulsed almost immediately and now retreated in tatters toward Vizzini. Some of the troops, officers and enlisted men alike, changed into civilian clothes as they ran and disappeared into the countryside.
The question had been answered. No matter how valiantly the German divisions fought, Sicily could not be held.
Even though the high ground around the Ponto Olivo Airfield near Gela had been taken by the American 82nd Airborne Division, the airfield itself was still in Axis hands. Colonel Meitner could have safely taken off in a small plane, but he had made alternate travel arrangements. The time had come for treachery to be repaid in full. He headed the Mercedes in the direction of another airfield, this one in Palermo where his Focke-Wulf FW190A fighter stood prepped and waiting. The route he chose would take him through the town of Villafrati.
# # #
All the lights from Il Castello Rimini were ablaze, like beacons in the night. As Colonel Meitner braked the staff car to a stop in front of the main entrance, he could sense a festive atmosphere inside. Laughter could be heard coming through the open windows on this hot July night.
His pale blue eyes narrowed to mere slits as he thought of the German boys some sixty miles to the south who were dying far from the Fatherland while these Sicilian aristocrats partied. He pounded the folded wire butt of his MP-38 three times on the massive hand-carved front door, then let the machine pistol hang down at his side from its shoulder strap.
The quivering old man who answered the door led the officer into the dining room. The gathering was a small intimate affair attended by only about a dozen or so of the countess’ closest friends. La Contessa, bedecked in the white-and-gold brocade gown as she had been the last time Karl had seen her, once again wore the Isabela Pendant about her neck.
Colonel Meitner smiled icily at the merry band of collaborators as he accepted a glass of wine. “Alla salute!” he said, raising the glass for a toast and clicking the heels of his highly polished boots together.
The others returned the salutation.
“Have you heard about the invasion?” he asked them, casually sipping the wine while watching their eyes.
“No, no,” they replied, feigning surprise. “Terrible, terrible,” they said, wringing their hands and clucking their tongues. The countess rose from her chair at the head of the table and offered a toast of her own, to swift and total victory. The entire company stood and repeated the toast.
Karl Meitner carefully set his glass on the end of the table, took three quick steps backward, raised the MP-38 into firing position, clicked his heels together again, then pulled the trigger back, holding it there until the entire magazine had been expended. Everything had happened so swiftly there were very few cries from the partygoers, just astonishment on their faces as they died. The Colonel bitterly tossed the machine pistol onto the table, unholstered his Walther PPK and walked the length of the room, turning over bodies with his foot and dispensing the occasional coup de grâce where warranted.
La Contessa Sophia Campi, severely wounded but still conscious when the Colonel reached her, did not allow her face to register fear, only disdain. She spat at him, the spittle mixed with blood hitting his highly polished boots.
Karl Meitner looked down at the noblewoman with contempt of his own but, as he slowly wiped the boots on her gown, he noticed that her throat was bare. He looked around on the floor in the vicinity of the woman. Nothing. As his gaze came to rest on her closed fist, sheltered under an overturned chair, the countess’ dark brown eyes betrayed her sense of alarm.
He righted the chair, put the sole of one boot on the woman’s outstretched wrist and shifted more of his weight to that foot. Her hand involuntarily opened and the rose-colored pendant spilled out onto the floor.
The last two things la Contessa Sophia Campi’s traitorous eyes saw were Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Meitner pocketing the diamond pendant with one hand and aiming the Walther PPK at her forehead with the other.
# # #
Vittorio Gianelli recklessly pushed his motorcycle to the limit as he raced to bring firsthand news of the invasion to his sister and her inner-circle of advisors. Leaving the main road and starting up the mountainside, he almost collided with a German Army staff car hurrying down from the opposite direction. He made an offensive gesture behind him at the disappearing tail lights and laughed. The days of German occupation of his beloved island were numbered.
Vittorio saw the lights of Il Castello Rimini at least a quarter mile before he arrived at the ancient fortress. He hoped that he had not missed too much of the festivities, though if he had, he thought his news would resurrect the merriment.
As soon as he shut off the motorcycle’s engine, however, he sensed that something was amiss. Although the windows and the front door were open, no noise issued forth from the building. The oppressive silence caused the hairs on the back of the resistance fighter’s neck to prickle. He instinctively drew his Beretta and cautiously approached the entrance, straining to hear any sound, however faint.
Once inside, he stopped and stood immobile in the marble entry hall, listening and watching. Thirty seconds went by during which he neither heard nor saw anything. Flattening himself against the wall, he overturned one of the large bronze braziers that flanked the entrance, kicking it and sending it skidding noisily across the marble floor. Then he heard it, a bare gasp and a stifled whimper from across the entry hall behind the closed cloakroom door.
Vittorio covered the distance in three swift leaps and roughly kicked the door open. He crouched, leveling his pistol and furtively sweeping it from side to side, watching for any movement that would present him with a target. A frail old man huddled in the corner, quivering and crying. The astringent smell of urine permeated the room.
Vittorio Gianelli holstered his weapon as he crossed toward the old man. “Paulo, Paulo,” he said softly, gently shaking him by the shoulder. “It’s Vittorio. It’s all right now. I’m here. Everything will be all right.”
The old man broke down, convulsing with sobs, repeating over and over again, “I’m sorry, Master Vittorio. I’m sorry.”
Vittorio put his arms around the old man and tried to comfort him. “No, no, Paulo. It’s all right. Tell me what happened. Where is Sophia?…Where is the countess?”
But all the old man could do was quiver and sob. “I heard the shots and I hid. I was afraid, Master Vittorio. I was so afraid and I did nothing to help the countess. I’m sorry, Master Vittorio. I know I am a coward, but please do not kill me. I am so sorry.”
The image of the German Army staff car flashed into Vittorio’s mind’s eye and even though he guessed at the sorrow that awaited him in the dining room, the young partisan held his fury in check. This gentle old retainer, filled with fear and remorse, could not be faulted for what had happened and should not be subjected to the young man’s rage.
He gently helped the old man to his feet. “Go to your room, Paulo. Clean yourself up and then come down and we will talk. I want you to tell me everything that you remember.” He affectionately squeezed the old man’s shoulder then turned and headed down the hallway in the direction of the dining room.
As a partisan, Vittorio had seen death many times, but the death of valiant warriors fallen in battle, the result of a firefight. The scene in his sister’s dining room was carnage— a massacre. As Vittorio slowly walked the length of the room surveying the butchery, the tears welled up in his smoldering obsidian eyes. These were men and women whom he had grown up knowing and loving, an extended family of surrogate aunts and uncles.
When he reached the end of the table, he knelt down, sat back on his heels, and tenderly cradled the body of his older sister in his arms. Only then did the tears finally come. A young Vittorio Gianelli stroked his dead sister’s hair and wept uncontrollably and swore a vendetta.
# # #
Following the evacuation of German and Italian forces from Sicily in August of 1943, after only thirty-eight days of fighting, the Allies did something that would have a profound effect on Sicily, on America, and on Vittorio Gianelli personally. Not wanting to occupy the island, the Armed forces turned over administration of Sicilian affairs to Americans who spoke fluent Italian. Sicilian expatriates living in the States could not believe their good fortune.
Where once Il Duce had all but crushed it in its birthplace, the Allies, in effect, although unwittingly, reimposed Mafia rule in Sicily. And as the new mafiosi sought out new recruits, they naturally looked to those young men who had fought so bravely in the Resistance. Vittorio Gianelli was one of the first inducted as a giovani d’onore—an honorable youth.