Memorial: The road connecting Castiglione dei Pepoli to a regional highway is named after SA’s 6th Armoured Division. Picture: JOHN YOUNG
Memorial: The road connecting Castiglione dei Pepoli to a regional highway is named after SA’s 6th Armoured Division. Picture: JOHN YOUNG

South Africans get a special welcome in Castiglione dei Pepoli, a town high in the Apennine mountains, halfway between Bologna and Florence. There is probably nowhere else in Italy that payment for coffee is acknowledged with "dankie".

The reason for the special link between SA and Castiglione dei Pepoli is a very sad one. In the last week of September 1944, the soldiers of Germany’s Waffen SS began a programme of systematically killing the women and children of the small villages of the Monte Sole region. The idea was to deny support to the partisans operating out of the forests. Most of those villages are now empty and silent because of those terrifying few days in 1944.

Soldiers of the South African 6th Armoured Division were among the first Allied troops to come across these massacres and are credited with saving many lives. At least 770 civilians were killed in what became known as the Marzabotto massacre, after one of the villages.

Nearby Castiglione dei Pepoli became the base for the South African forces and a military cemetery was established in the town in the winter of 1944.

Neil Orpen, in his regimental history of the Prince Alfred’s Guard, describes the massed mountains on which the town sits as "part of a giant wall forming a barrier before Bologna", a formidable obstacle to the Allied armies trying to fight their way north.

The town’s military museum and the immaculately maintained Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery overlooking the Brasimone Valley are the focus of annual remembrance ceremonies.

There is still a palpable sense of gratitude in the town for the sacrifice of the Allied soldiers, seven decades on.

When a new road was built in 2007 to connect Castiglione dei Pepoli to a regional highway, it was named Via 6 Divisione Sudafricana and a memorial was erected at the entrance to the town. A soldier’s helmet juts out of a simple piece of local stone that records the citizens’ "profound gratitude" for bringing "freedom to our town".

Headstones: Tribute is paid to 401  South Africans who lost their lives in the final stages of the Second World War.  Picture: JOHN YOUNG
Headstones: Tribute is paid to 401 South Africans who lost their lives in the final stages of the Second World War. Picture: JOHN YOUNG

My visit to Castiglione de Pepoli coincided with a happier event, the four-day montagne in fiera (mountain fair) in August. Hundreds of stallholders and exhibitors were selling everything from raisins to garage doors. Three vacuum cleaners hanging from the huge awning of one of the trucks pulled up on the Piazza della Libertá were dwarfed by chainsaws and other very varied merchandise.

The town’s best English-speaker was selling floor tiles and there was lots of clothing, leather work and jewellery. Hams and cheeses were on display; pancakes, waffles and ice cream were big sellers.

At night, Liberty Square — the place where the 6th Division celebrated its second anniversary — was transformed into a music venue. On my first night, I heard The Hangover, led by an athletic lady in a red dress, hammer out Johnny Be Good, while the second night’s musical fare reminded me more of "sakkie-sakkie". Both were popular.

Having been to the cemetery in the morning of my first day in the town and the museum in the late afternoon, I couldn’t help noticing the number of young men pushing prams and enjoying the company of their wives and girlfriends. I kept seeing in my head the ages on the headstones in the cemetery: 24, 22, 19. One private, CC Brassler, was just 18 when he was laid to rest.

Of the 502 white headstones arranged between sloping manicured lawns and red and white roses in the cemetery, 401 pay tribute to South Africans who lost their lives in the final stages of the Second World War. Italy had surrendered in September 1943, but Germany continued fighting on Italian soil until May 1945, just days before the war in Europe ended.

SS Major Walter Reder, who directed the massacres, was tried in 1951 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released in 1985 and died in 1991. The man who gave Reder the licence to go "beyond the normal limits of warfare", Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, was sentenced to death, but this was changed to life imprisonment. He was released on health grounds in 1952 and died in 1960.

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