Sunday, March 18, 2012

The tales from the Italian Front.

The tales from the Italian Front

The legend about Sepp Innerkofler

During the war both sides were using the services of the people living in the mountains, as they know the tracks, all the remote places, the mountains in general, the weather there and the right behavior, necessary to survive. 
Sepp Innerkofler was one of them, the people who were called „Bergführer“ (a mountain guide). He was considered as the most experienced mountain guide on the Austro-Hungarian side of the front. All the mountains in the Sexten area were conquered by him, and mostly he was the very first man on the top of them.  

Sepp Innerkofler

From the beginning of the war, he was a scarifying nightmare for the Italians. The patrols he leads were almost invisible ones; he and his men were moving through the mountains like the ghosts. He appeared suddenly in the remote mountain posts and, together with his men, he was spreading the death and the fear among the Italians. His favorite place was the massif known as Drei Zinnen and the country around it.  

 Sepp Innerkofler (center) and his "flying patrol".

From the first days of the war this was clear that the Italians would be trying to advance through Forcella Lavaredo pass. The highest mountain nearby was Paternkofel  (2744m) - all the people who were familiar with the mountains in the Austro-Hungarian army were convinced that a post had to be build there. Sepp with his men already went there one day, and they confirmed that the mountain was not captured by Italians so far. While being on the top of Paternkofel Sepp has realized that the mountain was so close to Austro-Hungarian positions, that any Italian patrol might be a deadly threat for Austrian troops. Together with some others mountain guides he was trying to persuade this to their captain, but he was not from the mountains and didn’t understand them – it seemed too crazy for him to build such remote position and he couldn’t find any sense in Sepp’s words.

War in the Dolomites.

The time went by...  Sepp was still on the move with his patrol men - they conquered Elferkofel (3093m) and Hohbrunnerschneid (3045m). The information he gained during those reconnaissance missions were noticed by the high command and he was awarded a medal.
Unfortunately his bad thoughts became a reality one day.  A small stone wall was spotted at the top of Paternkofel and the first shots were fired from the top of the mountain. The Italian post at Paternkofel was able to see each and every move of Austro-Hungarian troops below and soon there was no possibility for Austrians to move during the daylight.
On 4th of July Sepp and six of his men began their suicide mission. Sepp knew that this was one of the most dangerous tasks in his life. Using the most complicated and dangerous way, in the cold dark night, seven Austrians were climbing to the top of the Paternkofel. They done this climbing task perfectly - no single sound was heard and no one spotted them. 

 Paternkofel today

Below, at the pass, the Austro-Hungarian soldiers were waiting impatiently. In the morning light they have seen a silhouette of a tall, big man who was going to the very peak of the mountain. They have seen (but not heard) him throwing one grenade, then the second one, and another... Suddenly, above Sepp and at the very top of Paternkofel they saw another silhouette, it seemed to be even bigger than Sepp. They have seen this man throwing the piece of rock at Sepp, they seen the rock hitting Innerkofler... and Sepp has fallen down. This was a sudden end of the incredible duel at the top of the mountain - Paternkofel was still Italian.

This is one of the stories about this duel, but the reality is little more complicated. Some of the witnesses were claiming that Sepp was shot by the enemy, some of them were claiming that the deadly bullet was fired from Austro-Hungarian machine gun (When that big Italian was spotted, one of Austro-Hungarian machine guns started firing. The fire was immediately ceased by the commanding officer, but it was too late for Sepp.).

Sepp was buried at the top of Paternkofel. The Italians made a grave in the rock, using some explosives. He was lying there 3 years, then his body was moved to the cemetery in his village. Sepp’s son, who was at the exhumation and then assisted during moving of Sepp‘s body from Paternkofel to the valley, confirmed that his skull was hit by two bullets. This means probably that the version with Austro-Hungarian machine gun that killed Sepp is the right one.  

 At the top of Paternkofel - most probably this is a photo taken during the exhumation of Sepp's body.

Today there are many stories, both Austrian and Italian, about Sepp  – but doesn’t matter how they describe his death, all those stories are telling the same: he was the man who loved the mountains and he was the hero from Paternkofel.

The plate at Sepp Innerkofler's family house.

The Italian who was fighting with Sepp at the top of Paternkofel was Pierro de Luca. Today the way to  Paternkofel is named after Innerkofler and de Luca – two people who were born in the mountains, loved the mountains, and were forced to fight there.

Viktor Savs and his secret.

Viktor Savs was a soldier of Innsbruck 2nd Battalion. He enlisted at the age of 16, following his father - Peter Savs. It was not allowed for such young man to enlist, so a special permission, issued by archduke Eugen (the supreme commander of the armies on the Italian front) had to be arranged.
 V. Savs

Viktor, as most people who were born in the highland, loved the mountains. He was trying to be ordered the tasks that allowed him to do what he liked the much – and this meant skiing. Viktor was  escorting the packhorses and carrying messages as runner that was wandering the mountains day by day. Such tasks were pretty enough for the boy 16 years old, but Viktor also seen the real fight many times, especially at Zinnen plateau and Sextener Stinnen. One day he was escorting more than 20 Italian POWs, all alone! His service was noticed and he was awarded at least three times.
27th May 1917 was a very bad day for Viktor – one of the shells exploded above him and the avalanche of stones badly wounded his leg. Stuck under the stones he was trying to cut the leg off, to set free from the stones!
Viktor was sent to the hospital at Silian, finally his leg was cut off under the knee – but this was nothing special during the war time. What really surprised everyone, was his secret that was revealed in the hospital. Viktor was... a woman! Yes, her real name was Victoria Savs, and only a few staff officers knew about it before this accident. 

 V. Savs with her father.
Our brave heroine survived the Great War. She died in 1979 at age 80, in Salzburg.

Lt. Grosse and his platoon. 

A valley called Forcella Fontana Negra (2545m) was the place where Lieutenant Grosse and his 60 men were sent – their task was to defend this remote post. They had to stay there 8 days and then another platoon had to go there and do change them.

Fontana Negra during the war.

Lieutenant Grosse was an intelligent, courageous and clever soldier. He was not afraid of the Italians, his only worry was how to organize the defense at this post. He has checked the mountains around, found the possible threats from the enemy’s side and organized the posts around. He and his men were waiting now.

But there was another problem that made him worry and this was the shortage of his supplies. The only way to their position started at Wolf-Glanvell hut and part of this way was a vertical rock wall - the only way was to climb it using the metal stacks that were hammered into the wall. It was a deadly game for each and every soldier who was climbing it with all the equipment and ammunition on his back.  

Grosse had no other choice than to order that they must save the ammunition – it was allowed to shoot only if one was sure to hit the target. Their first day there was rather calm, and the same was during  the second. A fire from the Italian side was chaotic and rare. During the night the supplies finally arrived and the Austrians were waiting patiently for the next day.

Landesschützen Unterjäger

On the third day the inferno began – from the morning the Italian machine guns were shooting at Austro-Hungarian positions with no mercy. And there was no break in the fire. Two Italian battalions were attacking the position defended by Grosse and his platoon. The whole day the Austrian platoon was under the fire and Italians were attacking continuously – but with no success. Grosse’s men in their good positions were able to keep on the defensing their line for a long time, but just during this one day 1/3 of their ammunition were used. Grosse had send two soldiers down, to ask for the immediate supplying – unfortunately they were shot by the Italians on their way down. Unfortunately, Grosse and his men didn’t see it and they didn’t know they have failed – hopefully they were waiting for the supplies to arrive. 

The Italians were trying to climb one mountain nearby - Tofana I, and then use this position to attack the Austrians from the above. They were spotted on the way there and for most of them this was their last way - the Austrian machine gun crews knew very well how to use their deadly weapon. But the Italians were still trying to get there. Finally they have reached the remote Austrian post at Tofana I. Four Austrians were easily outnumbered – desperately trying to defend their position, they were fighting to the very end. 

Tofana in 1917.

The Italians and the Austrians were so close now, that hand grenade was better weapon than the rifle. The explosions were everywhere around, the rocks and shrapnel were flying through the air. Grosse was wounded, he cannot move his left hand but he was still fighting. Supporting his rifle on the rocks he was still shooting, using only his right hand. 

The night was there, and it meant another Italian attack. Thirty Austrians were still fighting, without any break from the previous morning and finally the Italians had to withdraw again.

After this night attack there were only 16 of Austrians left alive. Grosse was lying on the ground, with his leg wounded. Once again his soldiers arranged a position for their lieutenant, laying him among the rocks – he was still able to fire his rifle. They knew the end is near – there were only 30 bullets left... another Italian attack, the last bullets were fired and Italians withdraw again.
And this was the end. The Austrians have destroyed their rifles and were waiting calmly for the next wave of the enemy. The Italians have noticed the Austrian fire ceased and they came there in silence, with no signs of the triumph. A small group of Grosse‘s men became Italian POWs.

The Italians have won this time, but their joy lasted only for a moment. They regrouped and advanced, but soon they realized that Austro-Hungarian posts were again defended, as the reinforcements arrived just at this very moment. The battle of Forcella Fontana Negra has started from the beginning.

Lt. Wendland and the machine gun.

Punta Dei Bois (2657m) was the mountain standing alone, more than 300m over the positions of two fighting armies at the saddle known as Forcella dei Bois (2330m).

 A lone sentry somewhere in the Dolomites.

It took one hour to climb all the way to the top of the mountain - through the maze of ice, snow and rocks. This remote place was a „home“ for Lieutenant Wendland, his 18 men and one machine gun. The conditions there were harsh. Day by day they had to carry all the supplies using this dangerous route but they liked their post. The mountains there were beautiful and this was all they need to feel pleasured.  The view from the peak was really amazing – a distant valleys on the Italian side, Italian plateaux and the sea on the horizon. 

The landscape was fascinating there but they didn’t forget about the war. Their post allowed them to control the Italian war road to Falzarego. They used the machine gun to fire at this road, very often their fire made this route impossible to use for a long time, both day and night. This was not acceptable for the Italians and they decided to capture the mountain.

The first attempt was made during the night and one of the most dangerous ways to reach the top was chosen by the Alpini. However this was not a lucky night for the Italians – the night guard has heard them and the Austrians were prepared. Wendland fired at the first of the climbing Italians and he felt down, taking all his followers with him. They all felt 300m down the rocky wall.  

The Austro-Hungarian position with a mountain gun at 3360m.

The Italians have tried one more time. This time a very small group, maybe only two or three soldiers, climbed Tofana – the mountain that was above the Wendland’s post. They wanted to throw some grenades  from the above, making the Austrians to leave their post. At the first moment it seemed they have succeed – the Austrians were surprised but soon the Italian post was spotted and some shots have eliminated this danger. All Italians were killed. 

One of the following days was a misty one. The valleys around were all covered by mist and nothing could be seen. Wendland knew that this was the perfect day to attack his position again. He was continuously looking down the valley with the binocular and suddenly he saw some shadows in the mist. The machine gun was ready next to him - together with the first beams of the morning sunlight Wendland pressed the trigger and his machine gun started to sing its lethal song.

 A mountain remote post in the Dolomites.

All Austro-Hungarian positions were alarmed and they were ready to defense the positions but there was no reason to do anything. Wendland was still shooting, his machine gun alone was enough to reap the deadly harvest. The Italians were trying to regroup, then they were trying to attack again – but they cannot pass the curtain of iron from that single machine gun. Hundreds of them were dead and they had to withdraw.

Only when there were no Italians in sight, Lieutenant Wendland could stop firing. The machine gun was almost red from the heat, there was smoke over the barrel and the boiled water was dropping down from the radiator. 

(The information that became a base of those stories were found in the book "The Front in the Dolomites 1915-1917", by Milan Cepelka).

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