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Book Review: A House in the Mountains: The Women who liberated Italy from Fascism

A portion of the book cover

Reviewed by Major Andrew Maher

By Caroline Moorehead, CHATTO & WINDUS - TRADE, 2019, ISBN 9781784741402, 416pp

Recent discussion of the phenomenon of ‘Hybrid Warfare’ belies the history of war as a mixture of politics, deception and espionage, civilian mobilisation into irregular formations and conventional manoeuvre. World War II was typical of this mixture, particularly so in the Italian campaign. Yet, while Operation Husky (the amphibious landings in Sicily), Operation Shingle (the landings at Anzio), the battles at Monte Cassino and the breakthrough at the Gothic Line are relatively well-known actions, the efforts of the Resistance organisations to strategically complement such actions are not. It is against this gap that Caroline Moorehead’s book, A House in the Mountains, is addressed.

The German commander of the Italian theatre, Field Marshall ‘Smiling Albert’ Kesselring, described the elimination of the guerrillas as being of ‘capital importance.’ Guerrilla warfare is most effective when combined with conventional actions at the operational level. The twin dilemmas of frontal Allied pressure as northern Italian resistance pressured his supply lines, industrial base and food supplies ultimately tied down six out of the twenty-five German divisions Kesselring had at his disposal.

 Moorehead’s book describes this strategic context, while also illuminating the seeds of leftist agitation against Mussolini’s Fascist regime. These seeds were sown in the industrialised north of Italy by Mussolini’s misogynistic policies relegating women as second-class citizens, denied of the vote, particular vocational roles and education opportunities. These seeds of deprivation fuelled women’s roles within the leftist political organisation that resisted Fascism throughout the 1920s and 1930s. From this background, Moorehead helps us to see female involvement in partisan units during World War II as a simultaneous struggle against German domination and for Italian women’s emancipation.

With personal anecdotes, Moorehead shares the personal stories of such women, helping the reader understand their motivations for risking all in their struggle, in some cases, over a decade or more. She personifies the risks and losses experienced whilst serving the Resistance, as Fascist informants took their toll. She illuminates that the categorisation of these leftist organisations as Communist and thus pro-Soviet as being too simplistic; a distinction that was never understood by the British Foreign Office that looked to the post-World War II strategic balance as a zero-sum game.

The Resistance employed women initially as staffette. This Italian term describes a breadth of tasks, from messengers, to couriers, to propagandists, to intelligence operatives. Such functions were essential to support armed guerrilla bands, often dislocated in the mountains from the undergrounds in the cities and villages that supported them. Recruitment, writes Moorehead, was seldom ideological:

‘For the women… they had no decision to make, for there was no call-up for them. On the other hand… Fascism had trapped them in domesticity and segregation. This new life offered them adventure, the company of boys, intense friendships with other staffette, the chance to decide their own fates… the role of staffetta promised endless opportunities. For the first time in their lives, these young women could imagine having opinions and voicing them.

Resistance to the Fascists initially took the form of political agitation, strikes and minor sabotage actions against railways and industry. Employment of non-violent means were not however, insignificant during these early phases. Strikes reached a magnitude by March 1943 that effectively paralysed Italian industry in the north. The coordination of such strikes was the role of the staffetta, distributing propaganda, coordinating meetings to elicit support and providing gentle reassurance to those intimidated by the security forces.

‘By 8.30 on the morning of 16 March [1945], more than two thousand women carrying red flowers and wreaths, tricolour flags and placards denouncing Fascist brutality, had gathered at the gates of Turin’s main cemetery in Via Catania… It was one of the biggest demonstrations by women in the history of Turin… All though that Saturday in Turin, the local factories had staged fifteen-minute strikes. In the city centre, the trams stopped… organised by women, for women, who were neither cowed nor fearful of the consequences.’

Moorehead’s account of the Italian Resistance took its most significant twist after the cruel sequence of events following the Italian surrender to the Allies of 3 September 1943. Italian hopes for peace were savagely crushed by German occupation, backed by Italian rightist militias, such as the Decima Mas and Brigate Nere. German forces pursued their former Italian military allies who melted away into the hills to avoid conscription into these Fascist militias. Italian males were also targeted to form work parties for the German defensive lines or to perform what was essentially slave labour for Germany and Austrian industry. From September 1943, Italian women were the face of resistance, and suffered accordingly.

The Resistance benefited from these broader deprivations of the Fascist agenda.  ‘For young Jewish men, the options had shrunk to almost nothing. They could hide, but Italy was awash with informers; or they could join the partisans.’ German control also meant German reprisals, with civilians suffering disproportionally as a consequence. Mussolini also ‘widened the age bracket of compulsory military service, including both younger and older men.’ The Resistance proved attuned to the resultant social frustration which manifest with 57 percent non-compliance with Mussolini’s recruiting quotas.

‘Bitter young men were finding that they had the courage to disobey, particularly when they read the posters the partisans had plasters on the walls of every town and village:

‘We are expecting you… We will greet you with the happiness of finding a lost brother.’’

Total Partisan ranks swelled to 100,000 across Italy by January 1945, with more than one in six women, almost all of whom served in the German-controlled cities. Allied Commander, General Alexander called for Partisans to launch a ‘violent and sustained assault’ on the enemy following the news of the Normandy landings; a diversionary action for the Operation Dragoon landings on the coast of Provence on 15 August 1944. ‘They obeyed, with some 2,000 acts of sabotage in a month.’ In the Piedmont region, approximately 25,000 partisans posed a significant risk to the Italian theatre’s flank, resulting in the diversion of ‘four German divisions, eleven Fascist divisions and 10,000 men from the Brigate Nere occupying Piedmont.’ Occupation decimated the Partisan leadership in the north, surged the occurrences of rape, and tactically setback the guerrilla bands across the region. ‘German reports spoke of 2,700 dead Partisans in a single month, along with 5,000 captured.’

Moorehead helps us to understand the grassroots-level social discontent behind such actions. This discontent grew daily from 1943, and ultimately reached a crescendo with the Allied assault against the Gothic Line of April 1945. ‘In just three months [prior to Spring 1945], the partisans had killed or captured 2,670 Germans, derailed 19 of their trains, blown up 75 bridges, destroyed 41 engines and 5 factories making explosives, along with many miles of telephone and high-tension cables.’ Such actions occurred despite a paucity of support from an Allied command anxious of Italy falling into Communist control. Indeed, General Alexander urged the Partisans to halt operations over this time, given the Winter ‘seasonal barrier.’

Despite these constraints, Moorehead describes the Partisan liberations of Florence, Bologna, Modena, Genoa, Turin and Milan, and the smooth imposition of local governance structures within these towns to support control over the local population as the Allies advanced.

Moorehead’s narrative doesn’t shy away from the bitter experience these female Partisans experienced post-liberation, rapidly demobilised and denied the recognition of marching in victory parades with their peers. She also illuminates the scale of human misery during this conflict; ‘every day, between 8 September 1943 and liberation in April 1945, an average of 162 [Italian] people would lose their lives [in resistance].’

Through this book, Moorehead illuminates the complexity of the Italian theatre, which today would fit with descriptions of ‘hybrid warfare’. She offers personal anecdotes that help us to understand why civilians rebel against authority; human behaviour to which we should be attuned as a lesson from our involvement with insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Furthermore, she also offers insight into the biases Italian women faced when seeking to fight for their nation, their militia and their friends. With these insights, there is much to commend about A House in the Mountains for the military strategist and practitioner.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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