During the second word war on 24 August 1944, the German occupying forces massacred 335 Italian prisoners as a reprisal for a partisan attack on the German SS Police Regiment ‘Bozen’ the day before. 16 partisans carried out the attack which killed 28 German troops who happened to be ethnic German-speakers from the northern Italian province of South Tyrol. As they were marching and singing along the narrow street of Via Rasella in Rome a bomb which had been placed inside a street-cleaning cart exploded causing devastation. All the partisans involved managed to escape unharmed by disappearing into the crowd.

The men and boys they brought to the Ardeatine Caves represented a cross-section of Italian society. There were military officers, clerks, butchers, professors, lawyers, peasants, shopkeepers, carpenters, street peddlers, students, drivers, artists—and even a Catholic priest. The oldest was in his 70s; the youngest, still a teenager. Overeager officers supplied five more than ordered, but killed them anyway, to keep the massacre secret.