Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews  entries Jan 2005 thru Jan 2019.

There are 4 items on this page: 1 is the original transcribed oral account by Herman Chanowitz;
2 and 3 are in a blue information box, containing Basic Info on the Salerno invasion
and information on the Canadian campaign and the Battle of Ortona.
4 is from Aug. 2018, called A Different Kind of War Story,

which I feel belongs on this page.

 entry Jan 2005

(This is the second in a series of oral history narratives about WW2 in southern Italy. This edited narrative is the result of interviews with Herman Chanowitz, former captain in the 2nd Tactical Air Communications Squadron, and a veteran of the Allied campaigns in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. He is a long-time resident of Naples.)

Entries for WW 2 oral history


flag/vesuvius album cover)

1. The idea was to be up in Rome by Christmas time. That was the way they thought it was going to be, but they didn't realize in wintertime how difficult the struggle was going to be because of the mountains starting around Capua.

If you wanted to go from Naples to Rome, there were three roads. You could take one along the Tyrrhenian Sea; another along the Adriatic Sea—they're all very mountainous—and one is up the middle, Highway 6, the Appian Way. It's very, very rough. The Germans knew that. They knew that they were going to be in territory that was easy to protect because of the topography— mountains and valleys—and anything we did was going to be seen. Then the weather was against us—cold and mud and landslides. You could hardly move your mobile weapons like tanks and trucks.

map of
                  the Gustav LineThe Germans were absolutely sure that nobody could get through Cassino if it was properly defended. They believed they could block the Americans, so what they were doing was fighting for time. The Germans had a construction battalion with them. They were famous. They would get Italian labor, pay them a certain amount, and if the guys didn't want to come, the Germans would force them — abduct them from their homes. The idea was to build a defense line. They called it the Gustav Line, going from near Gaeta to Cassino and all the way across to the Adriatic side. They needed until Christmas time, so what they did was fortify the mountains on either side of Highway 6. Once you pass Capua going up to Cassino, you pass though towns like Mignano — we called it "Death Valley"
Presenzano, Teano, Mignano. The Germans really fortified those mountains. All they wanted was time. They'd say, ok, keep the Allies back for at least a week or so and then fall back to the next mountain and make sure that we are all lined up by Christmas time. And that's what happened.

We couldn't get through there. In fact, historically, only once has any invading army gone up to Rome from south to north, because when they got to Cassino they were completely blocked. Only once, and this happened, I think, in around 1100 or 1200. It was a Muslim army, I think. Most of the invasions of Rome were from the north.

[ed. note: The reference is to Robert Guiscard, the Norman conqueror of southern Italy, who invaded and pillaged Rome in 1084. Indeed, he employed Muslim mercenaries.]
The ruins of the old town of San Pietro, overlooking "Death Valley"

ruins of San PietroThe town sitting in front of Cassino was San Pietro [ed.note: complete name, San Pietro infine] That was the last stronghold before you get to Cassino. The Allies had liberated San Pietro, I think, around the 19th of December.  Then they were sitting in front of Cassino and couldn't get through.  First the Americans tried and got badly slaughtered. Then they tried with the English and got slaughtered. Then they tried with the French and got slaughtered. The New Zealand general said that he wouldn't attempt it until they got all the [German] observers out of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. He was convinced there were guys up there who could see everything.

[Q: That was responsible for the bombing of the abbey?]

That's right, but, hell, you didn't have to sit in the abbey to see what was going on. There were mountains all around that would show you the whole valley. So they went ahead and prepared to bomb it, which they did, of course, and I remember seeing that. There was 50% cloud cover. We made mistakes, we mistook targets. We had a hospital not too far away in a town called Venafro. We bombed the hell out of that, and we bombed the hell out of a lot of other places, not knowing from the air that they were Americans, visibility being what it was. Of course, we bombed the hell out of the Abbey. Then, the English had the Ghurkhas with them and the Ghurkhas started to go up, but the Germans had booby-trapped everything. They had trip-wires everywhere. All it did was make it more difficult for the Ghurkhas to try to get up, and they didn't succeed at all. They tried and tried—kept on trying—and were never able to get across.

Herman Chanowitz speaking at a
recent ceremony in San Pietro to
remember the liberation.

                  speaking at S. PietroFrom the time we got there somewhere around the first of the year until the middle of May, we were stuck there. This was when the Allies decided to go to Anzio to see if they couldn't get around Cassino, but they got stuck there because any place you could land was like an amphitheater—flat with hills all around you.

We remained in front of Cassino until May of 1944. It was the French army who really were responsible for our breakthrough. They did it by going a route that, as far as the Americans were concerned, was impossible. The Germans thought it was impossible, too. They were North African troops, from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. They thought that the loot belonged to them, including all the women—and they raped like hell. They thought this was the way war was fought. The Italians said, look, if this is what you're going to do, we'd rather be with the Germans. These guys also had their own sheepherders behind them because they were Muslims and couldn't eat pork. All of the fighting troops were Muslims, but the officers and non-coms were all Free French.

We had our outfit with these guys and we knew what the hell was going on. But they were able to break through because they went a route that the Germans thought couldn't be penetrated. The weapons they used weren't guns because guns make noise. They used knives. They'd sneak up on a guy and—they finally broke through. They cut the German supply lines that passed through the Aurinci mountains to the west of Cassino.

[ed. note: There is significant literature on the behavior of Moroccan troops in Italy. See this link.]

(to part 3)       
[There is also a page of supplemental photos related to these oral history interviews with Herman.]

(Photo credits:  I have been unable to trace credit/copyright information for the record album graphic of the stylized Mt. Vesuvius/US flag. If anyone has accurate information, I would be happy to list the appropriate credit. The map is a detail of a larger map on the website of the History Department of the United States Military Academy.)
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Basic Information on the Salerno Invasion

The Salerno invasion was code-named Operation Avalanche. It  was the largest seaborne invasion in human warfare until superceded by the Normandy invasion nine moths later. It started on 9 September after a long Allied advance across north Africa, through Sicily and a series of feints to confuse the Germans as to just where the Allied invasion of the mainland would take place. The feints did not really work. The Germans were waiting for them. It was a grim battle on the beaches. The invading force is usually glossed as "Anglo-American", which includes, however, a great number of Canadians. Order of battle usually lists Allied belligerents as US, British, and Canadian. The landings were carried out by the US Fifth Army, comprising the US VI Corps, the British X Corps, and the US 82 Airborne Division. Objectives were to seize the port of Naples and cut across the peninsula to trap Axis forces in the south. (That did not even remotely happen. Instead, the Germans staged an orderly and tenacious retreat north towards Rome (as you may read in the first item on this page, above).

US ground forces landed in the south of the beach-head near Paestum. The British Eighth Army landed further up near the town of Salerno, itself. It included the Canadian units. They served through the entire Italian theater, including the Salerno invasion and, notably, on the Adriatic at the Battle of Ortona from 21-28 Dec., 1943, a battle that Churchhill called "Italy's Stalingrad." (See entry directly below, still in this box.)
During the course of the Allied campaign in Italy, over 25,000 Canadian soldiers became casualties of war. They served in Italy until redeployed to the Western Front in February-March of 1945. The invaders landed 190,000 troops spread across the twenty-mile beachhead.

War historians note that German forces had just    
somehow escaped Sicily with their weaponry         
intact! This image shows the USS Savannah after 
it has been struck by a German radio-controlled    
glide-bomb while in support of the invading force.
German sources claim that they defended with anywhere from 3 to 5 divisions: the 3rd, 15th, 16th, 26th and 29th Panzer divisions, but not all at the same time, some being called up from the south after the invasion had already begun. Since the German definition of a WW II Wehrmacht division ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 troops, the exact number of defenders is difficult to gauge. It is unlikely that they had more than 125,000 troops. They defended the beach well (at one point the Allies considered abandoning the attack) but relatively lightly considering that they had 29 divisions in all of Italy. They had already sent six divisions north to defend Cassino. They may have been preparing to lose, but their job was to make it costly to the Allies. The attackers outnumbered the defenders, yes, but not by much. It is a given in warfare that attackers must outnumber defenders. That is especially true in seaborne invasions. But even if it was as high as two to one, that is not overwhelming. In this case, it squeaked by. The invasion was costly to both sides.

It took one week for the invaders to get clear of the beach; the US 5th Army lost 788 killed, 2,841 wounded and 1,319 missing (which, if you think about it, means dead). The US naval losses were 96 killed, 422 wounded and 551 missing. UK ground forces of the Eighth Army had 982 killed, 4,060 wounded and 2,230 missing. The Royal Navy had 83 killed and 42 wounded.
(add paragraph below Sept. 9, 2018)
Both the German Airforce and Navy were active, but not decisively so, sinking or damaging a small number of US naval vessels as well as some of the famous "Liberty ships". The most effective German naval vessel at the invasion was the Schnellboot (fast boat) (similar to the American PT boat). The most popular, the S-100 class, was very seaworthy, heavily armed and capable of sustaining 43.5 knots (80.6 km/h; 50.1 mph), briefly accelerating to 48 knots (89 km/h; 55 mph). The German Airforce made limited but effective use (see image) of the Gleitbombe (Glide-bomb, radio controlled from the aircraft that released it.)

-  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -
added 31 Dec. 2018         Canadian Troops at
The Battle of Ortona

What Churchhill called "Italy's Stalingrad" because of the bitter house-to-fighting was a relatively small but vicious battle in the Allied drive to break through the formidable German defenses along the so-called Gustav-line (map, Ortona is at the top). Of the various German defensive lines running east-west across the Italian peninsula to block the Allied drive to Rome after the Salerno invasion, the Gustav Line was the strongest and best defended by the Germans.

The line was anchored in the east at Ortona, an Adriatic deep-water port, and ran through the mountains to Monte Cassino and then Gaeta on the other side. Below that line, the main Allied force, if not blocked, was at least stalled. The plan to be "in Rome by Christmas," had been illusory. The Allied drive up the middle, the Liri Valley, had walked into a deadly ambush. The German defenders had the high ground and were using it effectively. Thus, by Christmas 1943, the main Anglo-American force had slowed to a crawl and then stuck at San Pietro (first item, top of this page) below Cassino, and they were taking heavy losses. Canadian infantry, technically embedded in the British Eighth Army, was also notably engaged on the Adriatic at Ortona in an agonizing battle against an elite German paratrooper unit. The Gustav Line was holding, slowly bending in places -- but not breaking. Ortona seemed crucial (less so, in hindsight) to the Germans because it provided supplies to the Germans on their retreat towards Rome after German-held Adriatic seaports farther south had been taken by the Allies after the Salerno invasion in September.

The battle took place from 21-28 December between elements of the German 1st Paratrooper Division under Lt. General Richard Heidrich and the 1st Canadian Infantry Division under Major General Christopher Vokes.  At the time, the town of Ortona had about 20,000 civilian inhabitants. On paper, the military losses, compared to other battles, on both sides look light
about 200-250 dead on each side. But consider that almost every civilian home in Orton was destroyed and 1300 civilians, more than one-tenth of the population, perished, most of them buried in the rubble of the own homes. The Canadian advance employed what they called "mouseholing" --using explosives to "mousehole" -- blast through -- the walls of homes. It was house-to-house, hand-to-hand, all the way. At the end, it is not even clear if any great strategic advantage was gained since German defenders had already started to destroy port facilities, thus denying them to the Allies. German supplies continued from the north. Rome was not liberated until June 5, 1944, six months behind schedule (and coincidentally one day before the Normandy invasion began in France).  In 2006, Canada placed a memorial to the battle in Ortona (image, above).The Moro River Canadian War Cemetery is in the locality of San Donato, just south of Ortona. There are 1562 grave markers, most of which mark casualties from elsewhere in the Italian campaign.

sources :
- Bercuson, David J. : Maple leaf against the Axis : Canada's Second World War. Stoddart, Toronto 1995, ISBN 0-7737-2861-9.
- Stimpel, Hans Martin : Die deutsche Fallschirmtruppe 1942-1945 : Einsätze auf den Kriegsschauplätzen im Süden. E.S. Mittler & Sohn, Berlin 1998,  ISBN 3-8132-0577-0.
- Zuehlke, Mark : Ortona : Canada's epic World War II battle. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver 2004, ISBN 1-55054-557-4.

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added August 3, 2018 -- This is a much later entry, which I feel belongs on this page.

The Balvano Train Disaster -- Another Kind of War Story

I have placed this here, below Capt. Herman Chanowitz' account of the battles in the Liri valley for Mt. Cassino because they occur almost exactly at the same time and they are both part of same war, each in its own way, one pitting soldier against soldier, the other pitting civilians against an indifferent fate, incompetence, corruption -- it's hard to put a finger on it.

The disaster occurred between the stations of 
Balvano-Rucigliano and Bella-Muro on the way up.

I won't bury the lead: the Balvano train disaster was the deadliest railway accident in Italian history and one of the worst railway disasters ever. It occurred on the night between 2-3 March, 1944 near Balvano (province of Potenza, region of Basilicata, 100 km/60 mi SE of Naples). Depending on sources, between 500-600 people illegally riding a steam-hauled freight train died of carbon monoxide poisoning when the train stalled on a steep gradient in the "Galleria delle Armi" tunnel (Armi tunnel). To put the time-line further in perspective, the Allies had already pushed the Germans north past Monte Cassino and were at the beginning of a stalemate on the approaches to the invasion site of Anzio which would finish in June, 1944 with the liberation of Rome. Back down in the south the newly reconstituted Italian army was now part of the Allied drive to the north. They were under the command of general Pietro Badoglio but politically, southern Italy was run by the Anglo-American forces of occupation.

What is noteworthy about the Balvano train disaster is, of course, the tragic loss of life. Perhaps just as remarkable is that today almost no one knows about it. I have lived here for decades and I don't recall ever hearing about it, not even from persons whose knowledge of local history I truly respect. I learned of it only last week from Selene Salvi, my go-to source of info for all things Neapolitan, but not because she, herself, knew of it earlier. She learned about it a week before I did, from a person who has written a book about it. I have no explanation to offer except that we expect soldiers to die in war. We honor and value their bravery and are justly moved by brilliant poetry that celebrates, for example, "those who in their lives fought for life/ Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre./ Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun,/ And left the vivid air signed with their honour." [Stephen Spender] We honor even the civilians killed by enemy action -- at least they died in an air-raid! We pay countless tributes to innocent civilians, victims of the insanity of war's cruelty, such as Anne Frank or victims of the Holocaust. But the casual civilian deaths of weary, helpless people just trying to get home and be with or care for whatever families they have left? -- well, that's just the way it goes.

The locomotive series 740, one of the two
used to pull the train.

Economically, occupation script currency wasn't worth much. The non-combatant civilian population of the south had pretty much gone over to barter, the world's oldest money. In this transactional economy, there were goods that were prized not just for their immediate value, but for what could be "squirreled away" beyond immediate need and then be traded for something else when the time came. (There is a German expression, hamstern -- same thing, a rodent that stores stuff -- indeed, a "pack rat." Allied troops were a gold mine of such valuables -- cigarettes, chocolate, nylon stockings. You can always barter that stuff for fresh produce, for real food. And you could "squirrel away" the rest. In WWII, and even well beyond, any Allied (particularly US) exchange (PX) or commissary was a center of enormous black market activity.

The railway companies experienced shortages of good-quality coal. The burning of low-grade substitutes produced a large volume of carbon monoxide, an odorless, poisonous gas. This was a critical factor in the ensuing disaster. The train from Naples to Salerno was electric, but the electric engines had to be swapped out at Salerno for steam locomotives since the home stretch from Battipaglia to Potenza was not yet electrified.

One should note that this train, the Nr. 8017, was a freight train -- 47 freight cars, some closed, others flatbed -- pulled by two steam locomotives, one Austrian, the other Italian. (One had the controls on the left side, the other had them on the right side; thus, the engineers looked out opposite sides for signals. The engineers could not see each other directly face to face or communicate easily, (another possible factor in what was to come.) The 8017, was meant to haul wood to repair bridges that had been destroyed in the war. There were not supposed to be any passengers on board. Yet 500-600 people died. Who were they? Hitch-hikers. Stowaways. They were all those struggling men, women (and some children), bearing their goods to barter, just trying to get them back up to their families in the hills, all jumping aboard as the train progressed. They made it through the early part of the night and by 00:50 AM had reached and were now ready to leave the station of Balvano (425 meters elev.), the last one before the disaster. Under normal conditions, the trip up to the Bella Muro station (a line-of-sight distance of 6 km) might have been expected to take two hours.

The three photos here: above left some of the passengers carried out of the tunnel and laid on the passenger platform of the Balvano train station; above right - victims strewn on the tracks; below, right - a truck prepares to carry a load of victims to their communal grave.

It was a difficult stretch through various tunnels, one of which was almost two km long on a steep gradient of almost 13 degrees. That's where the train stalled, about 800 meters past the entrance and heading up. Except for the last two cars sticking out the end of the beginning of the tunnel, all the rest were in the tunnel, stalled in what had essentially become a chamber rapidly filling with carbon monoxide. The track conditions were slippery and the locomotive wheels were spinning and slipping. There is evidence that at a certain point one locomotive was still trying to make the climb while the other was trying to reverse the train (!) back down and out of the tunnel. The engineers were overcome by carbon monoxide as were at least 500 people still asleep when they died. Most of the victims were buried without a religious service at the Balvano cemetery, in four common graves. Throughout the Neapolitan area one still finds small commemorative plaques to local townspeople who "died at Balvano."

A committee formed to figure it all out issued this statement that said there were:

...material causes, such as dense fog, atmospheric haze, complete lack of wind, which did not keep the natural ventilation of the tunnel, wet rails, etc., causes that unfortunately occurred all at once and in rapid succession. The train stopped because of the fact that it slid on the rails and the staff of the engines had been overwhelmed by the gas produced, before they could act to move the train out of the tunnel. Due to the presence of carbon monoxide, extraordinarily poisonous, it produced the asphyxiation of stowaways. The action of this gas is so rapid, that the tragedy occurred before any aid could be brought from the outside.

(Image, left, the common grave in Balvano)

The episode did not go unnoticed at the time, at least in major Italian newspapers. Corriere della Sera published accounts in various issues from the month of March. 1944. But as "greatest disasters" go, it has remained under the radar of public consciousness ever since.

There have been a number of relatively recent books in Italian published about Balvano. This is a partial list:

  • Gianluca Barneschi, Balvano 1944: I segreti di un disastro ferroviario ignorato, Milano, Mursia, 2005, ISBN 88-425-3350-5.
  • Gianluca Barneschi, Balvano 1944. Indagine su un disastro rimosso, Gorizia, LEG Libreria Editrice Goriziana, 2014, pp. 340, ISBN 978-88-6102-151-8.
  • Salvio Esposito, Galleria delle Armi, Napoli, Marotta & Cafiero, 2012, pp. 148, ISBN 978-88-88234-99-1.
  • Vincenzo Esposito, 3 marzo'44. Storia orale e corale di una comunità affettiva del ricordo, Salerno/Milano, Oèdipus edizioni, 2014, ISBN 978-88-7341-210-6.
  • Gennaro Francione, Calabuscia, Roma, Aetas Internazionale, 1994.
  • Gordon Gaskill, "La misteriosa catastrofe del treno 8017", in Le 33 storie che hanno commosso il mondo, XXIX, n. 166, Selezione dal Reader’s Digest, July 1962 (XV), pp. 11-16.
  • Alessandro Perissinotto, Treno 8017, Palermo, Sellerio Editore, 2003, ISBN 88-389-1878-3.
  • Patrizia Reso, Senza ritorno. Balvano '44, le vittime del treno della speranza, Maiori, Terra del Sole, 2013, ISBN 978-88-903277-6-6.
  • Mario Restaino, Un treno, un'epoca: storia dell'8017, Melfi, Arti grafiche Vultur, 2004, SBN IT\ICCU\BAS\0180024.

The first author in the bibliography, Gianluca Barneschi, was the principal narrator of a RAI History (Italian TV) documentary on the disaster, called Balvano, il titanic ferroviario (the railway Titanic); it was well-done with emphasis on the fighting still very much going on in Italy and making extensive use of model trains to demonstrate the dynamics of the incident. The program ran on March 3 (the anniversary of the disaster), 2015. The incident was noted abroad, as well. An issue of Time Magazine from the period ran a story: "Italy - Death Train" - that led, "At the mountain whistle-stop of Balvano, 60 miles southwest of Naples, special train 8017 stopped for water. Then it struggled off into the rainy night -- two locomotives tugging 45 freight cars jammed with some 700 passengers. In a damp, narrow, two-mile long tunnel, train 8017 stopped again." And it goes on to unfold the tragedy. So, the event was world news, at least at one time. Today it is forgotten.

More recently there was an episode called "Final Destination" about the Balvano train disaster from the documentary Disasters of the Century that ran in (2000) on the Canadian history network. I have not seen it.

There is also a song called "Galleria dele [sic - should be delle] Armi" - by American "outlaw country" singer Terry Allen from the album Human Remains (1996). He has little doubt.

During the time of the second world war,
a small town in Italy...
train number 8017...
wasn't strafing or bombing
or clandestine derailing...
It was just bad coal, the stockyard was the villain...

This is just my opinion, but that strikes me as grossly oversimplified, but it is what you might expect an "outlaw country" singer to say. I'm not even sure what an "outlaw country" singer is. It might just be a guy with a guitar and a song who illegally double parks his limo outside the recording studio.

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