It was quick thinking that saved Al Wilson when he came face to face with a German tank in the streets of Rome on June 4, 1944.
Well, quick thinking and European infrastructure.
Wilson had just entered the city from the north as part of a small, elite force known as The Devil’s Brigade—a now legendary group that is seen as an early model for the small Special Forces units that are now a key part of modern warfare. Rome had been under German control, but its forces were retreating — and it was the brigade’s job to stop them from blowing the city’s bridges on the way out, which would have cut off vital supply lines for the advancing US 5th Army.
But first, they had to deal with that tank.
'It bothers Al. Especially the young German soldiers. They were just kids.' - Wilson's wife, Madge
The six men Wilson was alongside were highly trained — but highly trained means little against that kind of ordinance. Thankfully, the streets were so narrow and built with walls so high that the tank couldn’t bring its gun around to fire on them. Wilson whipped out his weapon and started firing on the vehicle as a distraction, so his men could get over the wall and escape. Then he dove over the wall himself.
The group scrambled to the top of a building and watched that German tank do circles around the block, searching for them. And so started Wilson’s part in the allied liberation of Rome — 70 years ago to the day. While much less famous than the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy days later, taking Rome from the Germans was the first liberation of a major European city in the Second World War.
A whole city celebrating
“He never mentions all the Italian girls kissing them,” Wilson’s wife Madge chimes in from across the room in their Dundas, Ont. home. He smirks, and continues on. “We walked right into Rome and hardly saw any Germans after that,” he said. “When we chased the enemy out, the [Italian people] rushed out to see us, in a bit of a frenzy, really. There were bottles of wine flying around.”
It wasn’t long after that Wilson found himself on the Vatican steps, watching bands playing and people celebrating. The significance of the day isn’t lost on him, but he’s still nonchalant about the whole thing. “Well, you had to sit somewhere,” he said.
Fifth Army units encountered scarce German resistance that day as ecstatic Italians spilled into the streets to welcome the oncoming troops. Their stay was brief, however, as the battle for control of Italy continued in the north.
Rome’s liberation was the culmination of an offensive launched in the winter of 1944 that the Allies hoped would quickly fell the German army. But even with Rome in the hands of the Allies, it would be another eleven months until victory was assured.
The 89-year-old doesn’t talk about war much, his wife says. He still spends some nights sleepless, thinking about it. “It bothers Al. Especially the young German soldiers. They were just kids.”
Wilson nods in affirmation, searching for the right words to explain the things he’s seen, and had to do. “It was so long ago,” he said. “You came home and just didn’t want to talk.”
'The worst is yet to come'
He’s a soft-spoken man — but Wilson was a part of one of the most intimidating service forces on the side of the allies. The Devil’s Brigade was an elite American-Canadian special service force that was given another name by the Germans: the black devils.
That name stemmed from a 37-day operation in Anzio, Italy. Wilson’s brigade would blacken their faces with boot polish sneak behind enemy lines under cover of darkness, “knock off two or three and then head back,” he said. They also left a note written in German on each soldier they killed, which roughly translated to “the worst is yet to come.”
“We left it on a dead body to let the people who were left know there was still more coming.” It was a fearsome edict, but not one that Wilson revels in.
But the Devil's Brigade became legendary — so much so that it inspired a 1968 American war film of the same name based on 1966 book co-written by American novelist and historian Robert H. Adleman and Col. George Walton, a member of the brigade.
The unit is of particular interest to war buffs, because it became a model for special forces like the U.S. navy SEALs, years later. But Wilson remains quiet and unabashed about what the group did during the war.
“We were just doing our jobs.”