1,100 British, South African and American prisoners of war were put on a train to be taken to a camp in Germany. On January 28, 1944, they were crossing the Orvieto Railroad Bridge North in Allerona, Umbria, when the American 320th Bombardment Group arrived to bomb the bridge.
Unaware that there were Allied prisoners on the train, they dropped their bombs on their targets. The Germans left the prisoners locked in the boxcars and fled. Approximately half the men were killed by the bombs, or when the cars ultimately tumbled into the river below.
As Sue Finley stood among the ruins five years ago, she thought: “I might be the only person in the entire world who knows what happened here, and that a tragic accident might go unrecognised forever.”
On 28 January 1944, US air force planes bombed a bridge at Allerona, north of Orvieto in central Italy. Captain William Cook, the intelligence officer of the 320th Bombardment Group wrote afterwards that “an excellent concentration of bombs bracketed the bridge” and a “train of 40/50 cars standing across the bridge received direct hits destroying 10 cars, derailing three and the remainder buckled up in an arch”.
What he and the pilots did not know was that on that train were more than 1,000 allied PoWs: Americans, Britons, South Africans and others. To this day, no one knows for certain how many died. Estimates range from 200 to 600.
“It was possibly the worst incident of ‘friendly fire’ in the second world war, and certainly the worst in Italy,” says Janet Kinrade Dethick, a British expatriate living in Umbria, who has carried out extensive research into the tragedy.
Yet, until just a few years ago, the bombing of Allerona bridge appeared to have been forgotten. When Finley, a New Jersey newspaper owner and the daughter of a survivor, tried to discover more, she found just one mention of the incident, in the book War in the Val D’Orcia, the published diaries of an Anglo-American married to an Italian landowner.
On Saturday, however, thanks to the recent efforts of an Italian historical research society, Giugno ’44, and the Italy Star Association of British veterans, a monument is to be unveiled near the bridge. Finley will be there. And so, in a sense, will the victims.
Fabio Roncella of Giugno 44 says an elderly neighbour of his in the nearby village of Montegabbiano told him how he was taken by the Germans to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy.
“When they arrived, they found a mountain of corpses. They put them in a bomb crater, drenched them in petrol and set light to them,” Roncella said. He has unearthed a report by British engineers who were sent to Allerona two months later after the Germans had been driven northwards and the bridge destroyed.
They recounted finding the remains and deciding to put one of the piers of a new bridge over the crater. The memorial has been placed on that pier.
Allerona bridge was the scene of unimaginable horror, but also of great heroism.
“It was a terrible sight,” recalled Corporal Bill Marsh of the 1st Battalion, the South Wales Borderers. “We were all locked in cattle trucks with only a small window in the top corner of the truck, which was made fast with strands of barbed wire.”
Some who survived were freed by an Italian working on the bridge who grabbed a pickaxe and set about smashing bars and locks on the wagons. Others owed their lives to Corporal Leonong Matlakala, a Native Military Corps driver with 2 South African Division. “He and three others forced their way out of their truck and ran up and down the train, releasing the rest of the PoWs. The strafing from the aircraft continued all the while and some of the trucks caught alight, but their actions succeeded in saving many lives,” a South African military researcher concluded.
So why did the incident not feature in histories of the campaign?
“I don’t think it was hushed up, but just pushed aside,” says Kinrade Dethick. She is surprised, nevertheless, that the 320th Bombardment Group’s official history continues to celebrate it as a victory.
It records: “Group Marauders caught a German troop train stalled on Orvieto North bridge the 28th and exploded bombs among the fleeing enemy soldiers.”
A similar incident took place during the”Battle of the Bulge, where a Railroad yard near Limburg, Germany was struck by 9th Air Force light and medium bombers on Dec. 23, 1944 during the first day of good weather during the Battle of the Bulge. Unfortunately, since the rail cars were not marked per the Geneva Convention, Allied POWs often in transit sometimes lost their lives in rail attacks as a result.
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