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The Ardeatine Massacre

(March 24, 1944)

The caves entrance at the Fosse Ardeatine Monument

The Ardeatine Massacre, or the Fosse Ardeatine Massacre, was a mass killing carried out in Rome on March 24, 1944, by German occupation troops during the Second World War as a reprisal for a partisan attack conducted on the previous day in central Rome against the SS Police Regiment Bozen.

Subsequently, the Ardeatine Caves site (Fosse Ardeatine) was declared a Memorial Cemetery and National Monument open daily to visitors. Every year, on the anniversary of the slaughter and in the presence of the senior officials of the Italian Republic, a solemn State commemoration is held at the monument in honor of the fallen. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II each visited the memorial once during their respective reigns, as did Pope Benedict XVI on March 27, 2011.

Partisan Attack

On March 23, 1944, a column of the German 11th Company, 3rd Battalion, SS Police Regiment ‘Bozen,’ was attacked by an ambush of Partisans while marching and singing on a prescribed route that led through the Piazza di Spagna into the narrow street of Via Rasella. Organized by the Nazis to intimidate and suppress the Resistance, the battalion had been raised in October 1943 from ethnic German-speakers of the northern Italian province of South Tyrol, a territory that Hitler had annexed to the German Reich after the September “betrayal” by the Italian government. Many of its citizens had since opted for German citizenship. The soldiers of the battalion were veterans of the Royal Italian Army who had seen action on the Russian Front and had chosen service in the SS rather than face another tour in the East with the Wehrmacht.

Albert Kesselring

The attack was conducted by 16 partisans of the Communist-dominated resistance organization Gruppo d’Azione Patriottica (“Patriotic Action Group”) or GAP. An improvised explosive device was prepared consisting of 12 kilograms of TNT packed in a steel case. This was inserted into a bag containing an additional six kilograms of TNT and TNT filled iron tubing. Although reported as having been thrown from a building, the bomb had actually been hidden in a rubbish cart, pushed into position by a partisan disguised as a street cleaner, while others acted as lookouts. The fuse was lit when the police were forty seconds from the bomb. The blast caused the immediate deaths of 28 SS policemen, four more died later. All sixteen partisans—some of whom fired on the German column—succeeded in melting away into the crowd unscathed.

The German police attaché and commander of the Security Police in Rome, SS Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, was on the scene soon afterwards to supervise the investigation.

When the news of the bomb attack reached Hitler’s headquarters an order was issued to Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the Commander of Army Group “C” in Italy, to shoot within 24 hours 10 Italians for every German policeman killed. The order was silent on the question how the persons who were to be shot as a reprisal were to be selected.

This order was passed on to General Eberhard von Mackensen, who was the Commander of the German 14th Army, in whose sector of operations Rome was situated. He telephoned General Kurt Maelzer, who was the Military Commander of the City of Rome, to find out whether there were enough persons under sentence of death to make up the required number.

Herbert Kappler

Kappler, who was responsible for the prisons of the city, was summoned that evening to Maelzer’s headquarters. They agreed that the execution of ten Italians for each German policeman killed was a suitable ratio; however, Kappler had only four prisoners sentenced to death in his Hausgefängnis (private prison) at SS headquarters in the German Embassy on 145 Via Tasso (now the Museum of the Liberation of Rome); plus 17 serving long sentences; 167 deemed “worthy of death”; and two to four civilians who had been rounded up in the Via Rasella area on suspicion of involvement. Kappler’s superior, SS Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Polizei Wilhelm Harster, suggested making up the numbers from the 57 Jews also in Nazi custody.

By noon, on March 24 Kappler had a list of 271 victims, each with his crime listed against his name, except for the Jews, simply listed as “Jew.” By this time, the death toll from the Via Rasella bombing had risen to 32. To make up the numbers, Questore Pietro Caruso, chief of the Fascist police in Rome, offered some Italians from his Regina Coeli prison, one of whom, Maurizio Giglio, had been one of his own Lieutenants, before being unmasked as a double agent working for the American OSS in charge of radio communications with the Fifth Army. Because of the time limit that Hitler had imposed, Maelzer and Kappler agreed that the victims would have to be shot in the back of the head at close range rather than by conventional firing squad. The men of the regiment Bozen, the unit that was hit in the attack, were offered to avenge their comrades but they refused to do it in that way.


The massacre was perpetrated without prior public notice in a little-frequented rural suburb of the city, inside the tunnels of the disused quarries of pozzolana, near the Via Ardeatina. By mistake, a total of 335 Italian prisoners were taken, five in excess of the 330 called for. On March 24, led by SS officers Erich Priebke and Karl Hass, they were transported to the Ardeatine caves in truckloads and then, in groups of five, put to death inside the caves. Because the killing squad mostly consisted of officers who had never killed before, Kappler had ordered several cases of cognac delivered to the caves to calm the officers’ nerves. The officers were ordered to lead the doomed prisoners into the caves with their hands tied behind their backs and then have them kneel down so that the soldiers could place a bullet directly into the cerebellum, ensuring that no more than one bullet would be needed per prisoner. Many were forced to kneel down over the bodies of those who had been killed before them because the cave had become filled with dead bodies. During the killings, the existence of the five extra prisoners was discovered, and it was decided to kill them anyway, in order to prevent news of the location of the place of execution from becoming known.

A German officer, named Amon, testified at Kappler’s trial, which took place in Italy in 1948; claiming that once he entered the cave and saw the piles of dead bodies, he fainted and was replaced by a comrade who pushed him aside and shot another victim.

The bodies of the victims were placed in piles, typically about a meter in height, and then buried under tons of rock debris when German military engineers set explosives to seal the caves and hide the atrocity. They remained summarily buried and abandoned for over a year inside the caves. Families of the victims were notified with excruciating slowness by individual letter, if at all, a strategy of coverup and concealment – “Night and Fog” – designed to confuse, grieve, and intimidate surviving relatives, according to Robert Katz.

Only after Rome was liberated by the Allies on June 4, 1944, were the bodies finally found, by Armando Della Valle and another fireman who were sent to search in the caves after a tip off, exhumed, and at last given proper burial.


Misconceptions about the Fosse Ardeatine Massacre abound. Foremost among these is the notion that the Partisans responsible for the Via Rasella attack were ordered to come forward and turn themselves in to the SS and willfully declined to do so.

Although it is sometimes claimed that the reprisal victims were predominantly Jewish, only 75 of the 335 victims selected for death in the caves were Jewish, this having been a criterion for selection (because Jews were known to be marked for death anyway). In fact, the victims comprised, in [Robert Katz]’s words, “rich, and poor, doctors and lawyers, workers and shopkeepers, artists and artisans, teachers and students, men and teenaged boys from every walk of life, and even a man of God to walk among them.” The main concern of the SS had been speedy fulfillment of the quota. Some were residents of Via Rasella who were home at the time of the Partisan attack; others had been arrested and tortured for suspected Resistance and other anti-Fascist activities, while still others had been casually picked up on the streets or arrested at their homes on the basis of tips from Fascist informants. The youngest of them was 15 years old.

Political prisoners included members of the GAP, the PA, and the Monarchist Clandestine Military Front of the Resistance (FMRC), which included many policemen. Members of the Bandiera Rossa (“Red Flag”) a dissident Communist Resistance group, constituted the largest group. One political prisoner, Padre Pietro Pappagallo, was one of the models for the character of Padre Pietro in Roberto Rossellini’s pioneering neo-realist film Rome, Open City, filmed in 1944. Another, perhaps the most celebrated, was the aristocratic Colonel Giuseppe Montezemolo (age 44), who, after the flight of the King and Badoglio, had elected to stay and go underground in Rome, disguised in mufti as a professor or Ingegnere (engineer), to organize and lead the FMRC, representing the Badoglio Government, with which he had been in continual radio contact up until his arrest on January 25, 1944.

Colonel Giuseppe Montezemolo’s incredible courage under torture that included having his nails and teeth pulled out, became legendary. Another was General Simone Simoni (it), a war hero aged 64, who had endured torture with a blowtorch. The old soldier had replied to his captors, “My only regret is that I was not younger because there was so much more I could have done [for my country].” Neither man ever talked or in any way betrayed their network.


In November 1945, the British Military Court in Rome charged generals von Mackensen and Maelzer with committing a war crime for the murder of the Italians in the Ardeatine Cave. Both were found guilty and sentenced to death by being shot; however, their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.

Kappler was arrested by British authorities in 1945, turned over to the Italian government in 1947, and tried the following year. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Gaeta military prison. He escaped to West Germany from a hospital in 1977. The Germans refused to extradite him because of his ill-health. He died six months after his escape at his home.

Priebke, managed to escape to Argentina. He was extradited to Italy and tried in 1996. Priebke was ruled not guilty because the case was judged to have expired. On August 1, 1996, orders were given for his immediate release. Germany then sought his extradition but the Italian Supreme Court denied the request. The court also ordered a new trial on grounds the court that had freed Priebke was incompetent.

On April 14, 1997, this new trial began and Priebke was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Priebke only had to do 5 years because of a previous amnesty and he got additional time subtracted because of the time he had spent under house arrest and in custody in Italy. The sentence thus was to be 2-3 years. Priebke appealed and appellate court ruled he had committed cruel murders of the first degree and sentenced him  to life in prison. Priebke appealed this ruling all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. He died in prison at the age of 100 in 2013.

Source: Ardeatine massacre, Wikipedia
Law Reports Of Trials Of War Criminals.

Photos: Fosse Ardeatine - antmoose, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Kappler - United States War Department, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Kappler prison photo - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.