Fascinating tales from the War

Cliff Pettit during his talk with Morpeth Rotary Club member Alex Swailes, sitting, looking on.
Cliff Pettit during his talk with Morpeth Rotary Club member Alex Swailes, sitting, looking on.

Morpeth Rotary Club

Cliff Pettit, a retired solicitor of Alnwick and originally from Berwick, was in the Border Regiment during the final stages of the Second World War.

He visited Morpeth Rotary to talk about when he was stationed in Venice in 1946 and got to know Field Marshall Albert Kesselring.

He was in the infantry, aged 21, and had just been made Captain. His Regiment was with the second wave of troops into Berlin and took part in the VE Day parade.

Cliff was sent to Venice and then to Trieste for an expected attack by Tito and his Yugoslav partisans, then back to Venice until the war trials were over.

When a secondary group of war trials were due to start, he was sent with Major Tim O’Reilly and six men of the Cameronian Rifles to report to Venice Mestre Railway Station.

They were given a set of sealed orders, told to be fully armed and to travel light. They were to travel by train to Frankfurt Am Main to collect Field Marshall Kesselring, Hitler’s ground commander in Italy and senior in rank to Rommel.

He had been promoted to commander of the whole western front for the last six months of the war after he succeeded Von Rundstedt. He was being held in a military prison by the US Army.

They were to collect him from the IG Farben building in Frankfurt, which was being used as a US HQ.

They got to Frankfurt Station and waited for transport, but none arrived. Although heavily armed, they had to use a public bus in the US sector to get to the pick-up point, but no-one had told the US Army.

Eventually, the Major was allowed into the building while the rest had to wait outside for four hours in a snow storm. It looked as though the Americans did not want to release him to the British.

Kesselring had been a main witness for Goering and the German generals at the first round of trials, but now it was his turn. The papers ran stories that he had ordered the shooting of over 300 Italians as a reprisal against the action of partisans in Rome.

A mine had killed 30 to 40 Germans and Hitler had ordered 10 times that number of prisoners and civilians to be shot. Kesselring passed on the order – the shootings took place and the bodies were buried in the Ardeatine caves.

There was a second charge relating to Yugoslavian partisans who had blown up a railway. There was an order that for every German or Italian killed, a number of civilians must be shot.

They were not allowed to collect Kesselring that day and had to find accommodation nearby. Making their way around Frankfurt in the area of another army, with loaded revolvers, and only able to say they were on a secret mission, was difficult.

They were stopped three times on the way there and twice on the way back, losing another day. There was no US co-operation.

After more than two days, the US agreed to release him to the British at a rendezvous at the Bahnhof Hotel before taking a train to Strasbourg, then to Italy. They waited in a room for a very long time before a Colonel Potter of US Intelligence arrived with Kesselring, wearing a friend’s great coat and trilby and without badges of rank.

It was all a bit chaotic. They had to take him to Frankfurt Station but there was no official transport. A half hour before the train was due to go, they decided to approach any American officer for help and found a Colonel.

He strode into the middle of the road, stopped the first US jeep and told the driver to take them to the station. There were seats for the driver and four others but they had a party of eight.

A sergeant, Kesselring and the Major went in the back. Two soldiers went in the front seat, one was on the running board, Cliff was draped over the radiator and another was lying across the engine.

They set off through Frankfurt, but were stopped by the police. The major told the police that they would be held responsible if Kesselring missed the train so they allowed the four and driver to go but the rest were placed under arrest.

The Kesselring group found they were on an ordinary civilian sleeper train, with the Field Marshall in a reserved berth but no special security. Half of the passengers were US soldiers who all seemed to know he was there.

He spent two hours signing autographs for them. Guards were placed on four-hour shifts.

Cliff and the others were in a US prison in the city when they found there was a British liaison office 10 miles away and although they missed the train, they were released.

British liaison got them a lorry and they were able to travel down the autobahn to Strasbourg. Although it was a secret mission, they found the train had arrived and managed to trace the rest to where they were all sleeping in a stable.

The full group travelled to Austria then Rimini in Italy, expecting ex-members of the German forces to try to release him or Italians try to kill him. There was also a risk that he might commit suicide.

Every now and then the train stopped and they feared an attack. There had been a plot to free him by the Stahlhelm (a right wing German Army veterans association), but it had probably been defeated by the chaos of the British operation.

Cliff said that Kesselring was a delightful man to speak with. He did not have much English and Cliff had little German, so they spoke in French.

He made a number of diary notes and took part in conversations. In one, he compared Field Marshall Alexander and Field Marshall Montgomery. He said Montgomery went step-by-step but without flair.

He told him that Hitler had designated him as Governor General of the USA when it was conquered. He pointed out German strongpoints as they went through Italy.

Kesselring said he expected to be condemned to death. He was handed over in Rimini where they were met by a large number of British officers who treated him as a celebrity.

This was where Cliff saw his Divisional Commander, Major General Hakewill-Smith of the 52nd Mountain Division. He had just come down as Chair of the Court Marshall that was to try Kesselring and wondered if Cliff had heard of him.

Kesselring defended himself and was very impressive. He was condemned to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment when Field Marshall Alexander interceded on his behalf.

He was later freed and became President of the Stahlhelm.

Cliff was surprised to get a mention in his autobiography. It said that in January 1947 he was transported via Salzburg (actually Strasbourg) to Rimini for trial. Colonel Potter took him to Frankfurt, where he was handed over to ‘two very pleasant English officers’ and was later a guest of a US resident in a stable.

Kesselring died in 1960 aged 74.

Cliff was thanked by Morpeth Rotary member Alex Swailes and greetings were sent to Alnwick Rotary, where Cliff is a member.