Great Escape & Ardeatine

March 24: Two storied events of World War II happened on this day in 1944: the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III and the Ardeatine Caves Massacre in Rome. Especially as told in the 1963 film The Great Escape, that manoever is usually offered as a testament to Allied pluck and ingenuity, the against-all-odds moral victory emphasized over the fact that only three men reached freedom, and half of the recaptured seventy-three escapees were executed.

 

As the Stalag Luft III POWs were crawling to momentary freedom south of Berlin, 335 arbitrarily selected Italian POWs, prison inmates, and ordinary citizens were being executed in Rome. Ordered by Hitler, the executions were payback, at a 10 to 1 ratio, for some three dozen German soldiers killed in a partisan ambush the previous day. The Order Has Been Carried Out, one of the books in the Palgrave Macmillan Oral History series, places the story of the Ardeatine Caves Massacre in a wide context, reaching back to the victims' ancestors and ahead to their descendants. Below are excerpts from the central chapters dealing with those who felt the immediate horror and heartbreak of March 24th:

 

A witness to the selection and removal of those chosen to die:

I started screaming: "Murderers!" I realized right then that they couldn't be going to work, it was a slaughter, not a retaliation. And all the jail echoed back: "Murderers…" The jail called out: "Murderers!"

One of the German soldiers ordered to shoot:

A few minutes later I saw five more civilians escorted along the tunnel by five Germans. These civilians also had their hands tied behind their backs, they were forced to kneel beside the heap of corpses. …Captain Clemens then ordered us to raise our guns and fire on the prisoners. I raised my gun but was too afraid to fire. …Seeing the state I was in, another German pushed me aside and fired on the prisoner whom I was supposed to shoot.

From a poem by Lia Albertelli, wife of one of those shot, describing the search for the victims:

We hold on to one another

Hand in hand.

A few brides

And with us is a sister and a mother.

At the end of a cave rises a tall heap.

We climb

And the earth opens under our steps.

From the broken clods a bursting wind assails us

Its heavy breath harder and harder.

One of us gathers a blood-clogged strand of hair.

Her desperate scream hurls us to the earth.

We are there, underground, and we tread with our feet

Upon the fathers of our children.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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