Firefighters and trade unionists were essential in liberating Italy from fascism. Their history needs to be remembered, writes Riccardo La Torre
"The firemen will be there, again in front rank. We will have learnt in the Fire Brigades Union the lessons which must be applied to society as a whole. We shall know the value of unity and loyalty, of persistence against tremendous odds, of self-discipline and of democratic discussion. By the virtue of our knowledge we shall take the lead.”
The principles outlined by FBU national officer Peter Pain in 1941 are shared by firefighters all across the world. Pain was a prominent anti-fascist and was named in Hitler’s “Black Book” list of people who were to be executed in the event of a Nazi invasion of the UK.
Firefighters in Italy during the Second World War embodied Pain’s words. Their selfless and courageous acts were instrumental in the liberation of the Italian people and Europe from fascism and in the fight against the Nazis.
An enduring myth of the war is that the allies alone liberated Italy. The story of the Resistance (La Resistenza), which from 1943 to 1945 saw hundreds of thousands of Italian workers and trade unionists battle against fascism, is often forgotten.
Known as partisans, they took to the mountains to carry out guerrilla warfare against the occupying German army as well as the followers of the fascist dictator Mussolini. Most of the partisans were either communists or socialists, but they also included anti-fascist Catholics. Others simply fought to rid Italian soil of occupying troops. The Resistance worked in a system of support that included political parties, anti-fascist networks and large sections of the working class.
One of the youngest partisans to be captured and executed by the fascists was 19-year-old Turin firefighter Pensiero Stringa. He had refused conscription to Mussolini’s forces and instead took to the mountains to fight against them. His death in 1945 inspired fellow firefighters to form their own squad – the Stringa brigade – to take the fight to the fascists. As with all uniformed services in Italy at this time, they were subject to strict fascist controls, making their efforts even more risky.
AT LEAST 30 FIREFIGHTERS EXECUTED
The Stringa brigade was famous for emptying the water tanks of their fire appliances and using the space to smuggle British POWs and Jews across the Swiss border to safety. At least 30 Turin firefighters were executed by the Nazis for doing this incredibly dangerous work. Many more were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
The Nazis adopted a policy of ruthless reprisals – killing 10 Italians for every German killed by partisans – in an effort to undermine support for the Resistance.
One such incident, known as the Ardeatine Massacre, saw German troops execute 335 Italian prisoners and civilians in response to a partisan attack on an SS police regiment in Rome. Nazi response backfired and strengthened the relationship between the partisans and the people.
Partisan activities helped to liberate Naples, Florence and Milan, ultimately leading to the liberation of the rest of Italy in 1945. Most interestingly, and often unreported, the final large cities in Italy were liberated by insurrection following two days of general strike action.
Up to 700,000 Italians were involved in the Resistance. According to an Italian ministerial committee, 35,828 partisans were killed in action or executed and as many as 9,980 Italian civilians were killed in reprisals by the German and fascist forces. Their struggle and sacrifice ultimately led to the defeat of fascism in Italy.
Italians now officially celebrate Liberation Day on 25 April, also known as the Anniversary of the Resistance. The day is marked with marches and festivals in towns and cities across Italy. I am lucky to have attended many liberation celebrations myself and would encourage any trade unionist to do the same if they ever get the chance.
Firefighters have always had a strong and special relationship with our communities and society as a whole. As Peter Pain said: “Firefighters know the value of unity, loyalty and persistence against tremendous odds”.
These are values held by FBU members today and the story of the Italian firefighter partisans who risked and sacrificed their lives for freedom show that these values echo through the proud history of firefighters across the world.