With the invasion of Italy by the Germans in 1943, the situation along Switzerland’s southern border got worse.
Istituto storico Piero Fornara – Fondo Resistenza

The birth and death of the Partisan Republic of Ossola

In autumn 1944, partisans liberated the Ossola Valley (Val d’Ossola) and founded their own republic. They received strong support from Ticino. After the region was recaptured by the Germans, thousands fled to Switzerland.

From 8 September 1943, with the proclamation of the Italian armistice, the Second World War had a profound effect on day-to-day life in Ticino. Despite the region’s neutrality! The armistice resulted in the immediate German occupation of Italy, and the general institutional collapse of the peninsula. The Canton of Ticino, wedged between Italian territories, immediately became a crucial base for the organisation and conduct of the Allies’ war activities and, in particular, a nearby and safe retreat for the Ossola partisans.

AUTUMN 1943 TO SUMMER 1944

As from 13 September 1943, the upper Verbano region as far as the Ticino border was occupied by the first battalion of the second regiment of the ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ SS Panzer division. The unit, previously active on the eastern front, quickly reached the shores of Lake Maggiore. The commander of the battalion had been instructed to ‘…clean up the area between Lake Maggiore and the Swiss border’. The various barracks, hospitals and even the improvised convalescence centres were occupied and searched. Officers and soldiers seized there were deported to camps within the Third Reich.

The German presence in northern Italy caused a massive influx of groups of disbanded Italian soldiers and former allied prisoners into the Locarno region. But they were not alone: in autumn 1943 scores of civilians and at least 30 Jewish families – totalling about 150 people – managed to flee to Locarno. This throng of refugees quickly created a humanitarian emergency in the region. To cope with the influx, the Swiss army had set up two transit camps on the outskirts of Locarno: the first in Quartino and the second in Cugnasco. In mid-October 1943, almost all the refugees were transferred north by overnight trains through the Gotthard. In total, nearly 20,000 soldiers and civilians left Ticino, to be interned later in parts of German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland.

During the same period, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler unit killed at least 50 Jews in the Intra-Meina-Lake Orta region. In contrast to other German war crimes in the same area, however, the battalion’s participation in the massacres at least resulted in some convictions. In Osnabrück in 1968, two officers were sentenced to life in prison, while three others received lengthy jail terms. However, the convicted men had all been released by 1970, because of a formal irregularity in the proceedings!

Partisan leader Armando Calzavara (left) in Milan in 1945. During the war, he commanded a group of resistance fighters in the Cannobio region. After the war Calzavara worked in Zurich for several years as a manager for Olivetti.
Casa della Resistenza Fondotoce / Ester Bucchi

Excerpt from the ‘Deutsche Wochenschau’ newsreel dating from September 1943. The officer in the white uniform is SS Obersturmführer Hans Krüger, who was tried in Osnabrück for crimes perpetrated on the shores of Lake Maggiore. He remained in custody until 1970, before being acquitted by a Berlin court because of a formal irregularity. In 1970 he returned to Hamburg and resumed his work as a painter.
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TICINO BECOMES AN INFORMATION HUB

Towards the end of January 1944, reaction to the German occupation intensified. At this point, the first German forays by SS police units and the gendarmerie took place in the Ossola Valley, culminating in the bloody battle of Megolo. On 13 February 1944, 12 partisans, including Captain Filippo Maria Beltrami and his deputy, Lieutenant Antonio Di Dio, were killed. In spring 1944, the resistance forces swelled further. On 25 May 1944, the time limit for the call to military service in Benito Mussolini’s neo-fascist army ended. Despite the threat of the death penalty for those who refused to serve, the forces of the partisans continued to grow.

This situation prompted the Germans to step up their activity in the region. German campaigns culminated in the assassination of around 200 partisans in June 1944. Led by Lieutenant-Colonel Ernst Weis, 4,200 soldiers ‘cleaned up’ the region of Val Grande, north of Intra. Despite the decimation of the partisan bands, the Germans’ situation did not improve. On the contrary: from that date onwards, the Locarno region played a significant role in the partisan movement. Not only could the Ossola partisans cross the border easily, but Ticino also became an important hub of the resistance to the Germans and fascists. Information was passed on and activities were coordinated, and assistance was always given with a minimum of bureaucratic fuss.

SS police soldiers in front of the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées in Stresa. The photo was taken in autumn 1944 after an operation in Ossola.
Susanne Pauli, NS-Familien Geschichte Göttingen

Antonio Di Dio in a 1944 photograph.
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THE PARTISAN REPUBLIC OF OSSOLA AND LOCARNO

The advance of Allied troops in central Italy and the liberation of Rome spurred the partisans on. Assurances by the Allied air force and corresponding messages broadcast by Radio London further bolstered this new-found courage, and the resistance fighters were confident of Allied support from the air.

In summer 1944, the partisans therefore began launching frequent attacks and drove off at least 300 Wehrmacht soldiers towards Switzerland. By the end of August, a large part of the Ossola Valley had been liberated and on 10 September 1944 the Germans and fascists temporarily abandoned the capital city, Domodossola. This liberating campaign, which took place without any coordination among the various partisan groups, resulted in the founding of the ‘Partisan Republic of Ossola’.

This ‘Free Republic’ survived for fewer than 40 days, from 10 September to 17 October 1944. The leadership consisted of former political refugees who had returned to the Ossola region a few days earlier, mostly from Ticino. Support from Ticino grew rapidly. Food, money and even weapons and ammunition were supplied. At the same time, the inhabitants of Ticino and Ossola quickly established economic ties to allow the export of products to Switzerland, because this was the only avenue for the region, surrounded as it was by fascist forces.

A number of Ticino politicians, among them the Social Democrats Guglielmo Canevascini and Francesco Borella, and the mayor (Gemeindepräsident) of Locarno, Giovan-Battista Rusca, visited the Partisan Republic and saw to it that assistance from Switzerland was intensified further. These political contacts also signified an important, albeit unofficial, recognition of the new state in the political arena.

Tuesday, 20 June 1944, two German officers in front of a group of partisans in Fondotoce, Province of Verbania. The total of 45 people were shot in the hours that followed.
Casa della Resistenza Fondotoce / Ester Bucchi

RECAPTURE AND WAVE OF REFUGEES

The situation changed rapidly when the Germans decided, in early October 1944, to recapture the territory. With around 3,200 soldiers, mostly SS police, they advanced through Gravellona and Cannobio. Due to the difficult weather conditions and the stiff resistance put up by the partisans, the advance was delayed by several days. Nevertheless, the end of the Ossola Republic was approaching and Ticino was plunged into a humanitarian crisis – its second since 1943. Thousands, mainly women and children, fled for fear of retaliatory measures. Even partisans pulled back into Switzerland, and when Domodossola was occupied on 17 October 1944 a large part of the government also fled, because both partisans and civilians were being actively pursued. There were a number of incidents at the border. The promised air support from the Allies failed to materialise.

The La Carità hospital in Locarno was filled to capacity.  On 13 October, 50 injured partisans were brought in. The flood of refugees streaming towards Ticino increased day by day. An officer of the Swiss Army’s intelligence service estimated that in autumn 1944 at least 1,780 partisans and 18,000 civilians had fled to Switzerland. Those who didn’t make it across the border were executed or deported. After the collapse of the Partisan Republic, fascist troops killed 525 partisans and deported 625 people to internment camps in the Third Reich. Without the help it received from Ticino and the Valais, the bloodbath in the Ossola region would have been much worse.

Raphael Rues
Raphael Rues is a historian. He is currently working on his dissertation on the German-fascist presence in the regions of Ossola and Lake Maggiore.

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