When the Germans occupied Rome in September 1943, food was scarce. A system of rationing was already in place but food rations were reduced further over the ensuing months. Rations were available only to those who had a Carta Annonaria, or ration card.

Feeding the freedom fighters

From September 1943 until June 1944, groups of partisans were stationed outside of Rome. A combination of former servicemen and other volunteers, they attacked and ambushed the German occupiers, frequently targeting communication and transport lines that led to the front at Monte Cassino.

Within Rome were many resistance groups, and Gap (Gruppi di Azione Patriottica) was one of the most famous. Its members operated in small groups, “cells”, known by their “battle names”. They proved particularly effective at launching attacks against the Germans.

The resistance was not confined to military-style action. Members sourced intelligence, aided fugitives and otherwise used their skills to support the resistance effort. Sympathetic public officials often helped in secret.

Some resistance members lived a double life and remained openly in Rome but healthy men of working age and former servicemen were generally forced into hiding. One of the largest problems for the resistance was how to feed them; their ration cards were cancelled once they failed to present themselves to the Germans for approved work or military service.

Initially, the general population gave them food but, once rations were further reduced, few had food to spare. Sympathetic public officials tried to help although they could only supply around twenty or thirty ration cards at a time, as the cards were jealously guarded by the Germans. The growing numbers who needed them were in the tens of thousands in Rome and in similar numbers outside of the city.

We’ll make our own ration cards

One resistance group decided to make ration cards that would resemble the real ones as closely as possible. The task was entrusted to Ettore Basevi, who led the group’s press and information section. He consulted craftsmen, who all raised one major concern: the real cards were produced with watermarked paper. If forged cards were used regularly, they would be covered with shopkeepers’ stamps and would soon look authentic but, without a watermark, they would not withstand rigorous official scrutiny.

The group tried to obtain watermarked paper from the mill that produced it for the official cards but the Germans kept a close watch and no-one at the mill was able to help. The only other option, the group concluded, was to obtain the paper from the state printworks.

Break-in at the state printworks

Sympathetic members of the Guardia di Finanza (fiscal police) agreed to help the resistance gain access to the printworks in Piazza Verdi. Initially, a few men entered the workshop to determine the best way to take the paper. They reported back and plans were made.

It was a rainy night, around 2am, when a van stopped in Piazza Verdi in front of a concealed entrance. Basevi and four colleagues got out and quickly entered the printworks, using the doorway that had been left open by the Guardia di Finanza. The Guardia’s men were posted as sentries nearby, pretending not to notice