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Chapter no 26

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

General Leyers and Pino were on the move again almost constantly the following two weeks. Leyers went twice to Switzerland after visits to the train yard in Como, not Monza, which caused Pino to think that the general had had the boxcar with the gold moved. Apart from those trips to Lugano, Leyers spent the majority of his time inspecting the state of roads and train lines running north.

Pino didn’t understand why, and it wasn’t his place to ask, but when they drove to the Brenner Pass road on March 15, the general’s intentions were laid plain. The train tracks up through the pass to Austria had been bombed repeatedly. Service had been interrupted in both directions, and gray men were toiling to repair the line.

The Brenner Pass road went through a snowpack that still ran all the way down to the valley floor. The higher they drove, the higher the snowbanks flanking them became, until it seemed they were in a roofless tunnel of gritty white. They came around a bend that gave them a stunning view of the vast Brenner drainage.

“Stop,” Leyers said, and climbed out with his binoculars.

Pino didn’t need binoculars. He could see the road ahead and a mob of gray men like a single enslaved organism that dug, chopped, and shoveled the snow that blocked the way to the top of the Brenner Pass, and Austria.

They’re a long way from the border, Pino thought, and gazed higher. There had to be ten or twelve meters of snow up there. And those dark smudges way up, back toward Austria, looked like avalanche tracks. Below those smudges, there could be fifteen meters of snowpack and debris across the road.

Leyers must have made a similar assessment. When they drove far enough to get to the Waffen-SS troops overseeing the slaves, the general

climbed out and lit into the man in charge, a major by his insignia. They had a shouting match, and for a moment Pino thought they were going to come to blows.

When General Leyers returned to the car, he remained in a fury.

“At the rate they’re moving, we’ll never get the hell out of Italy,” he said. “I need lorries, backhoes, and bulldozers. Real machines. Or it’s impossible.”

“Mon général?” Pino said. “Shut up and drive, Vorarbeiter!”

Pino knew better than to press the general, and kept silent, thinking about what Leyers had just said and finally understanding what they’d been doing recently.

General Leyers had been put in charge of the escape route. The Germans had to have one to retreat. The train tracks were busted. So the Brenner Pass road was the only sure way out, and it was blocked. Other passes led to Switzerland, but the Swiss had stopped allowing German trains or convoys through their borders in the past few days.

As of now, Pino thought happily, the Nazis are trapped.

 

 

That night, Pino wrote out a message for Baka describing the huge snow barrier between Italy and Austria. He said the partisans or Allies needed to start bombing the snowy ridges above the road to cause more avalanches.

Five days later, he and Leyers returned to the Brenner. Pino was secretly pleased when the general turned apoplectic over news that Allied bombs had set off huge slides that blocked the road with walls of snow.

With every hour that passed, Leyers grew more erratic, talkative one moment, silent and sullen the next. The general spent six days in Switzerland toward the end of March, which allowed Pino almost unlimited time with Anna and made him wonder why Leyers hadn’t moved Dolly to Lugano or even Geneva.

But he didn’t think about any of that for very long. Pino was in love, and as love does, it had warped his sense of time. Each moment with Anna seemed breathless and brief, and filled with endless yearning when they were apart.

March turned to April of 1945, and it was as if some cosmic switch flipped. The cold, snowy weather that had plagued northern Italy and the Allied advance gave way to late spring temperatures and melting snow. Pino drove General Leyers to the Brenner Pass road nearly every day. There were backhoes at work on the road by then, and dump trucks hauling away the snow and avalanche debris. The sun beat down on the gray men digging beside the mechanical shovels, their faces burned by its brilliant reflection off the snow, their muscles twisted by the weight of the slush and ice, and their wills broken by the years in slavery.

Pino wanted to comfort them, to tell them to take heart, that the war was almost over. Weeks left, not months now. Just hold on. Just stay alive.

 

 

Long after dark on April 8, 1945, Pino and General Leyers reached the village of Molinella, northeast of Bologna.

Leyers took a cot in a Wehrmacht encampment there, and Pino slept fitfully in the Fiat’s front seat. By dawn, they were on higher ground, west of the village of Argenta where they could look down on the flatter, wetter terrain on both sides of the Senio River, which ran into Lake Comacchio, an estuary near the coast. The lake blocked the Allies’ ability to flank around fortifications Leyers had built on the river’s north side.

Tank traps. Minefields. Trenches. Pillboxes. Even from several kilometers away, Pino could see them all clearly. Beyond them, on the other side of the river in Allied territory, nothing moved beyond the odd lorry heading to or from Rimini and the Adriatic Sea.

For many hours on that hill that day there was little sound save that of spring birds and insects, and a warm breeze carried the scent of fields under plow. It all made Pino realize that the earth did not know war, that nature would go on no matter what horror one man might inflict on another. Nature didn’t care a bit about men and their need to kill and conquer.

The morning dragged on. The heat built. Around noon, they heard distant thuds, the echoes of explosions coming from the waters off Rimini, and soon, in the distance, Pino could see smoke rising far out to sea. He wondered what had happened.

It was as if General Leyers heard him.

“They’re bombing our ships,” he said matter-of-factly. “They’re choking us off, but down there is where they’ll try to break me.”

The afternoon ticked on, and soon it was as hot as a summer’s day, but not as dry. Instead of baking heat, all the moisture that had fallen during the winter steamed from the ground, making the air thick and oppressive. Pino sat in the shade of the car while Leyers kept up his vigil.

“What will you do after the war, Vorarbeiter?” Leyers asked at one point.

“Moi, mon général?” Pino said. “I don’t know. Maybe go back to school. Maybe work for my parents. And you?”

General Leyers lowered his binoculars. “I can’t see that far ahead yet.” “And Dolly?”

Leyers cocked his head, as if wondering whether to reprimand him for his impudence, but then said, “When the Brenner opens, she’ll be taken care of.”

They both caught a rumbling, droning noise to the south. Leyers threw up his glasses and studied the sky.

“It begins,” he said.

Pino jumped to his feet, shaded his eyes, and saw the heavy bombers coming out of the south, ten across and twenty deep. Two hundred warplanes flew right at them until they were so close Pino began to fear they’d release their payloads over his head.

A mile out, and a mile up, however, they banked in formation, showing their bellies as the bomb bays opened. The lead flight of bombers dropped altitude, set their wings, and swooped above the Gothic Line and German territory. They released bombs that whistled and trailed behind them, looking like so many fish diving from the sky.

The first one struck well behind the German defenses and erupted, hurling debris and throwing a rainbow of fluorescence and flame. More bombs started blowing up behind the Gothic fortifications, leaving charred blastholes and copper-red fires stitched in a carpet of violence and destruction that rolled east toward the estuary and the sea.

The last of the birds in the first wave were followed ten minutes later by a second, and a third, and a fourth—more than eight hundred heavy bombers in all. The lumbering planes let loose their ordnance in that same rhythmic pattern, only off by a degree or two so the new bombs struck in different parts of the German rear guard.

Armories exploded. Petrol supplies erupted. Barracks and roads and lorries and tanks and supply dumps evaporated in the initial assault. Then medium and light bombers flew in low over the river, attacking the defensive line itself. Sections of Leyers’s tank traps blew up. Pillboxes disintegrated. Cannon emplacements fell.

In the course of the next four hours, Allied bombers dropped twenty thousand bombs on the area. In the gaps between the aerial assaults, two thousand Allied artillery pieces shelled the Gothic Line in thirty-minute- long barrages. When the late afternoon sun shone into the smoke plumes up and down the river, the spring sky looked hellish and low.

Pino glanced at Leyers. As he scanned the battleground south of his broken defenses through the field glasses, the general’s hands trembled and he cursed in German.

“Mon général?” Pino said.

“They’re coming,” Leyers said. “Tanks. Jeeps. Artillery. Entire armies are advancing on us. Our boys will hold as long as they can, and many will die for that river. But at some point, not long now, every soldier down there will be confronted with the inevitable loser’s choice: retreat, surrender, or die.”

As the day gave way to gathering dusk, Allied soldiers with flamethrowers invaded the German trenches and the pillboxes. A black and starless night fell. As hand-to-hand combat waged out there in the darkness, all Pino could see were explosive flashes and slow whips of fire.

“They’ll be overrun by morning,” Leyers said at last. “It’s over.”

“In Italy, we have a saying that it’s not over until the fat lady sings,

mon général,” Pino said.

“I hate opera,” the general grunted, and walked toward the car. “Get me out of here, back to Milan, before I’m caught without options.”

Pino didn’t know what that meant exactly, but he eagerly climbed behind the wheel. The Nazis can retreat, surrender, or die now, he thought. The war itself is dying. Only days now from peace and, well, Americans!

Pino drove through the night back to Milan, elated at the thought that he might at long last get to meet an American. Or an entire army of them! Maybe after he and Anna were married they’d go to the United States like his cousin Licia Albanese did, bring his mother’s purses and Uncle Albert’s leather goods to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He would make his own fortune there!

Pino felt a thrill go up his spine at that idea, and he caught a glimpse of a future unimaginable to him just a few moments before. The entire drive back he did not once think of the biblical-scale destruction he’d just witnessed. He thought about doing something good and profitable with his life, something con smania, and he couldn’t wait to tell Anna all about it.

 

 

The Gothic Line along the Senio River was breached later that night. By the following evening, there were Allied forces from New Zealand and India nearly five kilometers beyond Leyers’s broken defenses, with the German army retreating and re-forming to the north. On April 14, after another stunning bombardment, the US Fifth Army broke through the western wall of the Gothic Line and rolled north toward Bologna.

Every day brought news of more Allied advances. Pino listened to the BBC each night on Baka’s shortwave radio. He also spent almost every day driving Leyers from battlefront to battlefront, or along the escape routes, where they watched long German columns fleeing at a much slower pace than when they’d invaded Italy.

The Nazi war machine looked crippled to Pino. He could see it in the shimmying tanks losing their treads and the shell-shocked infantrymen walking behind teams of mules pulling cannons. Scores of German wounded lay in open lorries, exposed to the blistering hot sun. Pino hoped they’d die then and there.

Every two or three days, he and Leyers would return to the Brenner Pass. With the heat had come snowmelt, and a torrent of filthy ice water ran down the pass, undermining the culverts and the road. When they reached the end of the open route, slaves were ankle and shin deep in the frigid water, still working beside the steam shovels and the dump trucks. On April 17, the gray men were a mile from the Austrian border. One of them collapsed in the water. SS guards dragged him out and threw him to the side.

General Leyers seemed not to notice.

“Work them around the clock,” he told the captain in charge. “The entire Wehrmacht Tenth will be coming up this road inside a week.”

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