Victory Road


September 22, 1943
2235 Hours
Naples, Italy

The waiter replaced the empty decanter of wine on the table and moved away quickly as if he had something important to attend to, although with the trattoria almost empty he had nothing of consequence to occupy his time. The waiter had family in the Camorra who were hard men, but the waiter was not. He was terrified of German soldiers, particularly those who drank.

His only remaining diners were two German officers who wore the uniform of the army, and their arrival had presaged a rapid departure of his few Italian customers who were afraid of being conscripted into labor battalions. Better the Wehrmacht than the SS, but it made little difference if they were drunk, and the waiter was certain the two officers had been drinking before they came into the small trattoria. Whether they were drunk before or not was immaterial as they definitely were now. The two German officers alternated between vehement arguments and laughter—both punctuated by pounding on the table.

The only thing worse than Germans in victory, he thought, were Germans in defeat.

They would not pay him for the vast quantity of food and wine that they had consumed, and he knew that he wouldn’t complain. It wasn’t safe to complain—all of Italy had heard the rumors of the barbaric behavior of their former ally since the surrender of Italy to the Americans and British.

Although the waiter could barely speak proper Italian—his cousins in Livorno claimed they could barely understand his Neapolitan dialect—he could speak almost passable English. The waiter, whose name was Luciano, had worked as a merchant seaman for years before the war, and during his time at sea, he had picked up bits and pieces of many languages. Luciano not only believed that the two men were speaking English, but he suspected that the German officers were speaking in American accents. He had left the sea at the first hint of war, and it had been so long since he had used the language that he wasn’t sure. Perhaps they were Dutch or Danish. Regardless, only the occasional word made sense to the waiter, who was not interested in German or Dutch or American gossip in any case. Had he been at least a little more curious, he might have confirmed his suspicion that the men were speaking English, and in American accents—one with a neutral west coast tone, the other with a southern drawl.

As the waiter moved out of earshot, the thin major poured out the wine for himself and his much larger companion. “I told them it’s illegal . . .immoral . . . completely unconscionable.” Major Douglas Grossmann was an intelligence officer and had only a passing regard for legalities, morality, and conscience. He was, however, a practical man and would use whatever argument that might hold the promise of success. “It’s a drain on our manpower and will have absolutely no effect on the war whatsoever except to brand us all as war criminals. I’ll tell you one more thing, Mark . . . it will turn our few remaining supporters in Italy against us and to no beneficial end at all. It is the dumbest goddamned tasking I’ve ever had.” The Abwehr officer unconsciously started to reach for a pack of cigarettes, but he only had American cigarettes on him and was not in the mood to share with his friend.

“Don’t hold back, Doug. Tell me what you really think of the Fuhrer’s orders.” Captain Mark Gerschoffer laughed at his friend’s frustration. Both officers knew that the orders did not come from Adolf Hitler, although they had certainly originated in Berlin. Total nonsense, thought Gerschoffer. Whenever headquarters ordered some questionable action, the orders always seemed to originate from Hitler himself. There weren’t enough hours in the day for one man to come up with all the stupidity emanating from Berlin.

Grossmann broke down, fished for his pack of cigarettes, and offered one to his deputy who declined and lit one of his own—Gerschoffer was addicted to Russian cigarettes, and the Ami tobacco was too smooth for his liking. “I think the Fuhrer is a military genius and is destined to lead us to a new world order based on culture and discipline.” Grossmann rolled his eyes as he spoke and then inhaled deeply of his cigarette, “And that’s all I have to say on that subject.”

“You’re a wise man, Doug. I tell that to all your friends . . . every morning in the mirror when I shave.”

Grossmann laughed at the friendly insult—the mark of true comradeship. He leaned back in his chair and regarded his friend and subordinate fondly. Mark Gerschoffer was one of the bullnecked, thick-bodied variety of German officers, but his size was not just the product of too much beer and too many sausages like many officers. Gerschoffer had been a fullback at the University of Georgia before the war and, appropriately, was the embodiment of a bulldog. Although not particularly tall, he was barrel-chested, muscular, tough, and aggressive. While many Abwehr officers had their reservations about entrusting Grossmann’s group of Auslandsdeutsche with state secrets, they kept their opinions to themselves in Gerschoffer’s presence. Grossmann pointed with his cigarette to the captain’s heavy five o’clock shadow, “Since you need to shave at least twice a day, what do you say about me the other time?”

Gerschoffer laughed and thought for a second, “I say that Doug Grossmann is a military genius and is destined to lead me to a new world order of . . . of, what was it? Disciplined culture? Or was it cultured discipline? Failing those, I am supremely confident he will lead me to a new brothel filled with the cream of Europe’s whores.”

Grossmann slammed his palm down on the table, and then held up his glass, “Yes! To leadership!”
The officers laughed as they clinked glasses and toasted leadership. Grossmann debated leaving the trattoria and finding either a cabaret or a brothel, but tomorrow would be a busy day. He was sober enough to recognize that busy days in his profession usually required clear thinking, so he shook his head and wagged his finger at Gerschoffer.

“You’re a bad influence on me. Maybe tomorrow. Let’s figure out how to execute these orders and then call it a night.”

“Yes, sir.” Gerschoffer knew the time had come to transition back to being a subordinate. “Tell me what you were told.”

Grossmann looked to make sure the waiter was out of earshot. “Our withdrawal from Salerno is going well, and we will eventually hold north of Naples near Monte Cassino. Naples should fall to the enemy in a week or so, and it is Field Marshal Kesselring’s assessment that they will probably pause operationally at Naples to let their logistics catch up with them. Then we will fight a delaying action until the Winter Line is prepared at Monte Cassino. Meanwhile, the directive from Berlin is to make Naples as unusable for the Americans and British as possible. The port is to be destroyed, rail lines torn apart, runways demolished, bridges and tunnels blown. We will take all usable industrial equipment, all locomotives, tractors, and trucks. Take electrical generators. Destroy what we can’t ship. Destroy the telephone exchanges and the radio stations. Burn whatever petroleum we can’t ship north. So, we take what we need, destroy the rest, and make Naples a showcase for other would-be traitors.”

“Yes sir. I have no problem with that. It’s all standard, but not our mission. The pioneers can do all that. What are we needed for?”

“In addition to making Naples unusable, we are to make it as . . . well, as unpleasant as possible.
Terrorize the Italians. Put the squeeze on them and their new allies. Food warehouses are to be emptied or burned. Medical supplies come with us. Make the allies feed and treat these traitors. Again, not our job, but we have a related task. We are to use our knowledge of the Americans and specifically target them when they become the occupiers of this miserable city.” He shook his head and looked around the shabby trattoria. “I can’t wait to return to Rome.”

Gerschoffer poured more wine for himself and his boss. “Me neither. Target them how?”

Grossmann shrugged, “That’s up to us to figure out. But I was told that we would be given explosives, time-delayed detonators, and demolitions teams to assist us. So we are to plant time bombs. The location and timing is left to us. I was also told to use my imagination—everything is on the table.”

Gerschoffer stared at his boss, momentarily sober, “Time bombs in the city? Are they kidding?”

“No, Mark, it’s no joke. And after I complained, the spineless bastards would only give me a verbal. No chance of getting the order in writing. Ach, an order’s an order. Where do we plant the goddamned things?”
“What’s the objective? To kill or terrorize?”


“Oh Christ . . . well, let me think.” Gerschoffer leaned back in his chair and scratched the stubble on his chin. “Well, there are going to be two types of Allied soldiers in Naples in two weeks—occupiers and sightseers. Might as well go after both of ‘em. I don’t mind fightin’ the Americans, but I didn’t come back to the Fatherland to play dirty tricks on ‘em. But as my dear ole southern mama told me many times, ‘Any job worth doin’ is worth doin’ well.’”

“Yes, I’m sure your mother would appreciate the irony.” Grossmann smirked but was disquieted at the thought of what his own American mother’s reaction would have been. She had died from a British bombing of his hometown of Darmstadt in July, 1940, but before her death had begged her son many times never to fight against her countrymen. Gently holding her burned and wrapped hand on her deathbed, Grossmann had promised her that he would never take up arms against the United States. But the world had changed since 1940. Germany was no longer the triumphant conqueror of Europe but was now fighting for her own survival. He knew that to be true, even if many of his comrades still acted as if the Reich stretched from the Atlantic to the Urals. Grossmann believed that America held the key. If the Americans could be beaten, or at least bogged down, then the Fatherland might destroy the Bolsheviks and survive. Otherwise, apocalypse beckoned—or more appropriately, it would be the Gotterdammerung as some Germans were now whispering. What does my rope of destiny hold, he wondered.

“I doubt it. She don’t have much of a sense of humor anymore. In any case, I don’t think I’ll tell her.”

Gerschoffer held similar views to his major on the necessity of America’s defeat. He loved the United States and missed Georgia deeply, but he knew that it had to be defeated. The lives of his parents and his sisters depended on it. They had moved back to Germany in ’38—the year that he graduated from Georgia—in order to work in the family business. His uncle was a Nazi Party functionary who had promised his younger brother that there was plenty of work in Germany for someone with connections, and work had been hard to find in Georgia at the time. The business had indeed flourished, and his parents had taken their profits and relocated to a community of Germans near Posen in the Warthegau territory of what was once, briefly, Poland. They had again been told there was plenty of opportunity in the new lebensraum of the Grossdeutsche Reich for someone with connections, but the gathering Bolshevik clouds to the east cast a long shadow on those promises. The Soviets were the true enemy, Gerschoffer believed, but Germany couldn’t fight two wars at once. So his philosophy was to stiff-arm the Americans in order to buy time to deal with the Soviets—and pray that they could be dealt with before they crossed the frontiers.

Captain Gerschoffer waved the waiter over again and handed him the empty decanter. Proper planning required more wine, he informed his boss. “As I was saying, two types of Allied soldiers. The occupiers are going to be the military staffs that’ll headquarter themselves in Naples while they work on seizing Rome—not that they will, of course.”

Grossmann nodded. “Go on. What other military presence can we expect to see in Naples?”

“Once they get the port operational, the majority of supplies will flow through here, as well as through Salerno. The logistics personnel to manage the depots and the depots themselves will be legitimate targets. Also, I would expect the British and Americans to commandeer Italian hospitals for their use—I suppose those ought to be off-limits . . . .”

“Berlin says nothing is off-limits.”

Gerschoffer stared at his commander and shrugged. “OK. I would imagine that they will also commandeer the Italian military facilities—particularly barracks and headquarters buildings, parade grounds, and training camps for their replacement depots.”

Grossmann nodded again. He had come to the same conclusions as Captain Gerschoffer. “Let’s plan for the Army Staff to headquarter on the palace grounds at Caserta. That’s where I’d set up shop if I were them.”

“Yes sir. I’m not sure it’s in our interests to kill Mark Clark though. They might find someone competent to replace him. Besides, I doubt that we can get access to the palace without giving away our intentions.”

“Maybe. You’re probably right, but we’ll look at it anyway. I want to concentrate on barracks and headquarters for the occupiers. Let’s also target the buildings along the docks—see if we can kill some of their engineers trying to rehabilitate the port.”

“Yes sir. Now, about the sightseers; what do you want to do?”

“Well, let’s think through this. Where are the Americans and British going to congregate?”

“The British are less impressed than the Americans with old stuff. They’ll head straight for the bars and whorehouses, although some might head for Pompeii. Maybe we can plant bombs in the bus depots. The Americans will sight-see first . . . cathedrals and museums . . . and then head to the bars and whorehouses.”

Grossmann laughed, “Maybe they’ll wait, maybe not. But that gives me an idea. Let’s lift the quarantine on those Romanian whores down by the docks as we leave. We’ll have to pay off the Italians to leave them alone. Maybe even set ‘em up in a nice house.”

Gerschoffer started laughing as well. “Now that’s a war crime! Those girls are nasty.”

“Ugly and diseased, indeed. Yep, just the ticket for a conquering army. Those whores were quarantined in the first place because that particular strain of gonorrhea is cure-resistant—the sulfa drugs won’t even touch it. We know from Africa and Sicily that the puritans don’t regulate the brothels like we do, so in no time at all, we can take hundreds of soldiers out of action. As virulent as that is, maybe even thousands! They’ll either have to divert penicillin from the field hospitals or send the soldiers back to their bases in Africa or Sicily. Either way, we win.”

“Through the drip?”

“Through the drip.” Grossmann laughed as he reached for the carafe again.

“Talk about unconscionable. What else do you have in mind?”

“Let’s leave churches off the list for now, although maybe we’ll do them if we have enough time. Starting tomorrow, let’s go after the opera house, theaters, cinemas, gelaterias, and open-air markets for a start. I’m gonna think about the hospitals, and if we run out of targets, we’ll get the breweries as well.”

Gerschoffer shook his head, “That’s doin’ ’em a favor. The beer’s terrible here. How about post offices? I understand the Americans bought up all the stamps in Africa while they were there. Who knew there were so many phila . . . phila . . . what’s that word?”

“Philatelist. Well, if they don’t get the clap first, we’ll kill them too!”

Both officers started laughing and pounding the table again, and the waiter whose comprehension of English was returning with every shouted word shrunk quietly further into the shadows of his restaurant and prayed silently for the Germans to leave.

Mark Bowlin Books