La Signora de Benedetti and the spring of 1944
Last October on a visit to Italy, we renewed acquaintance with Signora Luciana de Benedetti-Arditi. We had first met this attractive lady on July 4, 1975 at a Iuncheon for General Mark Clark given by the mayors of Anzio and Nettuno, whose twin cities on the Tyrrhenian coast some 40 miles southwest of Rome were the scene of so much devastation during the World War II spring of 1944.
At that luncheon she had sat quietly al the head table, taking in all the flowery talk as the mayors complimented General Clark, and listening intently to the General's version of his battle for the Anzio beachhead 31 years before. It was evident then, that the Signora could have added a few words of her own to the story, but the formalities were such that she politely held her tongue and smiled sweetly through it all.
This past year we had lunch with her again at one of the sidewalk tables in Rome's Piazza Navona and a week later visited with her in Anzio for afternoon tea at her farm home near the Ospedale Civile and just behind the grounds and villa of her old friend, Prince Stefano Borghese. She told us her story of Anzio, and it was most interesting. She thought the Americans and British were pretty stupid not to have gone on to Rome when they had the chance.
Signora de Benedetti is a sprightly widow in her early seventies: a tiny wisp of a woman with twinkling eyes, a bubbly sense of humor, and an excellent command of English. Although she maintains a small apartment in Rome on the Via Aurelia Antica west of the Tiber, she prefers to spend most of her time on her farm at Anzio. She lives alone in the remodeled barn and cattle-shed there (the family villa was, destroyed during the fighting 33 years ago), and her farm vineyard raises grapes, which she sells to the local cooperative. But her main energies are devoted to the lawn and flower gardens, which surround her home. She drives an ancient British Morris, and a trip with her through the crowded streets of downtown Rome is an eye opening experience. ("I drive--how do you say it in English-jerky?")
Her husband, who was a nationally known Italian sculptor, died several years ago. Her children are grown and live away, a son close by in Rome, and two daughters in northern Italy. But all of the family were together at Anzio during the war years, and remained there throughout all of the unbelievable destruction that accompanied the almost five months, of bitter, continuous struggle for that small bit of beach frontage. She remembers those days with some amusement now.
After Italy capitulated in September 1943 and the Germans took over the country and put it under military occupation the de Benedettis were forced out of their farm villa by the commanding colonel of a German unit stationed there. "He was a very, ugly, nasty man she recalled. "I pretended I didn't understand German, and for several weeks I refused to move. But finally when his General came and threatened to pack all of us off to a labor camp, I had to give in."
Later, the "ugly" colonel was transferred and a younger, more pleasant German officer took over. "This one was very nice, with kind eyes. He was a gentleman and very polite, and the reason he wanted my house was because of my grand piano. He played very well."
In early January, 1944 about two weeks before the Allies landed at Anzio, the gentlemanly German officer took her aside and confided that he and his unit were being moved up the coast to Civitaveccehia, about 50 miles north of Rome, where they were expecting an invasion by sea.
"He told us that we could move back into the villa, and that all of the German troops were leaving the area."
"We were living in the villa again when the Americans and British came. One night this terrible noise and rumbling woke us up. We didn't know what was going on and we stayed awake until dawn. Then this young American lieutenant burst through the door and pointed his carbine at us. I said: "Don't shoot! Don't shoot! I speak English! I told him all the Germans were gone, and that he should drive straight on into Rome. Later I told the American and British officer the same thing."
The Allies failed to take advantage of the initial surprise of the Anzio landings and proceeded much too cautiously. The Germans had time to move troops back in from all over Italy and surround the beachhead. Many weeks later the fighting was at its peak, an ammunition dump, which had been established on the De Benedetti farm, was destroyed and their villa was completely destroyed. The family escaped miraculously and moved into the Borghese villa with their neighbors, the Prince and his sister.
In April the 5th Army moved advance headquarters up to Anzio and into the Borghese villa and grounds. "They were very nice to us," said Signora Benedetti.
"My husband was to live upstairs with the officers. The children and I had to move down into the cellar with the enlisted men who were very kind. They dug a foxhole big enough for all three children and we kept them in it for the next two months. I used to sneak up at night to see my husband, but we could not get much sleep because of the terrible shelling and bombing. But, of course, we were much younger then, and we didn't mind it too much."
It was almost dark as we finished tea on the small covered terrace of the de Benedetti farmhouse. The Signora urged us to finish the cake she had made.
"Do you remember that lunch last year with General Clark?" she asked. "I listened to him tell about all the planning and about how clever they were to capture Rome. I wanted to get up and tell about all the Germans being gone and how they could have gotten there five months sooner if they had just listened to me, but then, I didn't want to spoil his story."
(c) "The Doctor's Lounge", The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, March 1977, Vol. XXIV