Mussolini – Part 3

Albert Kesselring

Today continues our publication of  Stacy Danielle Stephens’ Mussolini excerpt from her huge, amazing Historical work, which began last week.

The King intended that Mussolini be arrested upon leaving the Royal estate, but the men responsible for making the arrest insisted that it take place within the confines of the estate, to preclude any possible resistance, which could involve gunfire, if Mussolini’s supporters were standing by, which now seemed likely, since Mussolini had telephoned his mistress, Clara Petacci, instructing her to leave at once and find a safe place to hide.

* * *

Mussolini began the meeting as he normally had, briefly informing his Majesty of the military situation. Then he started explaining that the Grand Council’s motion against him was meaningless, as the Council itself served only as an advisory panel to Mussolini, without authority over him. The King interrupted him at this point.

“It is no longer any good,” he said, “Italy is shattered. In fragments. The army is without morale, the soldiers have no will to fight left in them. The Grand Council’s vote is terrible, nineteen of them against you. You are hated, with no other friend in all of Italy but me. So you need have no fear for your own safety, I will see that you are protected. I think Badoglio is the man for the job now.”

“But Hitler has secret weapons,” Mussolini protested.

“That’s as may be, but things here cannot be otherwise than they are now. You cannot remain in office.”

“But we still have men stationed in the Balkans,” Mussolini continued protesting. “I’ll need two more weeks to bring them home.”

“That cannot be helped; Marshal Badoglio will have to arrange for their return. There is no other solution. You must step down immediately.”

Victor Emmanuel was livid with agitation, yet cordial; shaking Mussolini’s hand a final time before walking with him to the door. Once outside, Mussolini was intercepted by a Carabinieri Captain.

“His Majesty has made me personally responsible for your protection.”

Mussolini nodded, continuing toward his own car. The Captain took him by the elbow, pulling him toward an ambulance.

“In here,” he said. Mussolini got in. His secretary was also apprehended and placed in the ambulance. Six more men, four in uniform, joined the three of them in the ambulance, which then discreetly left the grounds by way of a rear gate.

Marshall Pietro Badoglio

No sooner had Mussolini been taken away than Marshal Baodoglio was being summoned. He’d heard, of course, that he would be appointed head of the new government, but still didn’t know when, or if, there would be one, or what his part in it would actually be. He had decided beforehand that it would be appropriate to wear his uniform appearing before the King, but hadn’t wanted to wear it every day, since he had gone into a nominal retirement upon his removal as chief of staff. So the King had to wait a few minutes more while Badoglio changed clothes. He was not in the least surprised by what the King was asking of him, but with impeccable false modesty, he observed aloud that he had never been involved in politics. While this was true in the barest technical sense, among Italy’s general officers, Badoglio had always been the most politically savvy. He knew that if this had not been so, the King would not be speaking with him now. Still, not missing a beat, he waited a moment longer before he asked, with studied dramatic irony and a carefully tremulous voice, how he could handle this job.

“You will learn.” The King had replied as if the phrase were a pre-arranged password.

While Badoglio coyly accepted the greatness being thrust upon him, Renzo Chieri, at the Ministry of the Interior, was surrendering command of Italy’s police forces to his predecessor, Carmine Senise, whose arguments were tacitly buttressed by the five hundred armed men accompanying him[1].

Not wanting to be dramatic, Party Secretary Scorza offered to order the Blackshirt Militia to stand down, and not resist the transfer of power taking place, if the conspirators agreed not to arrest him. They agreed, and he did exactly as he had promised he would, then disappeared completely until the Germans apprehended him in Rome on November 24th, 1943[2].

Enzo Galbiati, as commander of the Fascist Militia, could have countermanded Scorza’s order to stand down, but chose not to. He was placed under house arrest until August 4th[3].

* * *

At eleven PM, a forty-five second message on Italian radio announced that The King had accepted Mussolini’s resignation from office as the Head of the Government, Prime Minister and State Secretary, and had appointed Marshal Pietro Badoglio Head of the Government. Before midnight, the entire country had erupted in celebration. By morning, virtually all photos, busts, or statues of Mussolini, as well as most Fascist symbols and slogans, had been removed or destroyed, and a coalition of anti-Fascist leaders came to Badoglio’s office, demanding Italy’s immediate withdrawal from the war.

* * *

Although Mussolini’s “resignation” could hardly have surprised Hitler, it did infuriate him, primarily because he understood the significance of Badoglio’s appointment as head of state. The Italians would be negotiating with the Allies; they would seek a separate peace, hoping for at least an armistice, but would surrender unconditionally if they could not wheedle or weasel either a vestige or appearance of better terms.

For several minutes, those around Hitler were essentially stunned by the degree to which he was agitated by the news[4]; he was not merely ranting an emotional screed, or sputtering violent outbursts in rapid succession, but was incoherent and lost until at last he brought his fist down on the table.

“We’ll round up that lot in a single swift action,” he said. “The Second Parachute Division at Avignon. They are to drop on Rome at once. I want them in the air as soon as their planes are fueled. They’re to seize strategic points around the city, and hold them until the Third Panzer Grenadier Division–it’s full strength, and stationed at Viterbo–can reinforce them. We’ll bag that idiotic puppet of a King, and his doddering, conniving head of state. The Crown Prince, too. Oh, him especially, and any other scum we can lay our hands on.”

“You wish to seize Rome?” General Jodl[5] asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“Which units shall we send to seize the Brenner Pass?”

“Ah,” Hitler replied. “I see what you’re getting at.

The Third Panzer Grenadier Division is to remain at Viterbo. The Second Parachute is to move by rail and conventional air transport to Pratica di Mare. As reinforcements for our defense of Sicily. And Skorzeny is to locate and liberate Benito Mussolini.”

* * *

On July 26th, 1943, Erwin Rommel was recalled from Salonika and sent to Munich, where he was to begin planning and preparing for the seizure and/or defense of Northern Italy[6]. That same day, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring met separately with both the King and Badoglio. Both men assured him of Italy’s commitment to remain in the war and in the Axis. On the 27th, while Kesselring met with Hitler to make the case for holding Southern Italy[7], Badoglio met with the King, and the two of them decided to approach Hitler on the subject of jointly seeking peace with the Allies. Hitler refused to meet with either of them for any reason. On the 28th, Badoglio and the King decided they must attempt to contact the Allies, and began seeking a means to do that.

* * *

On August 1st, 1943, the British sent a radio signal to SIM, the Italian Military Intelligence Service, using a captured Italian transceiver in Bengazi, inviting the Italians to respond if they wished to communicate. General Ambrosio, Italian Army Chief of Staff, instructed SIM to reply; however, General Cesare Amé, head of SIM, perhaps more fully aware of how painstakingly the Germans were monitoring all Italian radio transmissions, disregarded the order.

On August 2nd, 1943, Marquis Blasco Lanza D’Ajeta, a staffer of the Italian Foreign Service, flew to Lisbon to meet with a British Ambassador there, in hope of initiating talks with the Allies. He was informed that Italy must surrender unconditionally.

On August 3rd, 1943, Winston Churchill distributed to the War Office a two-part plan for the Italian Surrender: they would be given a simple military armistice with the proviso that they would agree to abide by a more thorough subsequent agreement. The armistice was to be presented as if the subsequent agreement had not already been spelled out. The second agreement would, in fact, be signed immediately after the first.

On August 4th, 1943, another Italian Foreign Service staffer, Alberto Berio, flew to Spanish Morocco to meet with another British agent to begin negotiating terms with the Allies. He, too, was informed that Italy must surrender unconditionally.

On August 11th, 1943, General Ambrosio sent his assistant, General Giuseppe Castellano, to meet with Sir Samuel Hoare, the British Ambassador in Madrid. After speaking with Hoare on the 15th, Castellano went to Lisbon on the 16th.

* * *

On August 14th, 1943, Hitler received, considered, and refused to accept Albert Kesselring’s resignation of his command[8]. However, on the 15th, Hitler designated the several German divisions in southern Italy the Tenth Army, which he placed under the command of Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff[9], who in turn answered to Kesselring. With that, Smiling Al was smiling again.

[1] Chieri would shortly be given command of an Alpine Battalion, and later apprehended in Rome by German agents, who would remand him to the custody of Mussolini’s Republican government. Awaiting trial, Chieri would die in prison when a heater warming his cell exploded. The heater may have been defective, or rigged to explode, or Chieri may have caused the explosion himself. As a former National Chief of Police, he could be under no illusion as to the nature or outcome of his trial.

[2] He would be tried and acquitted by Mussolini’s Republican government in April, 1944, and tried in absentia by Allied authorities after the war, but later pardoned. He would return to Italy in 1955, dying in Florence in 1988.

[3] Galbiati would be formally detained on August 23rd and held until Seprember 12th, when the Germans moved him by force to Frascati. He was twice offered a position in Mussolini’s Republican government, but declined on both occasions. He died on May 23rd, 1982.

[4] Mussolini’s dismissal and arrest presaged Hitler’s own darkest personal fear; to be removed from power.

[5] Jodl had received information he deemed reliable, to the effect that an Allied invasion in the vicinity of Rome was imminent. Scuffling with stray Italians was the last thing he wanted German soldiers involved in.

[6] He would command an Army Group composed of the 1st SS Panzer Division, the 24th Panzer Division, the 60th Panzer Grenadier Division, and the 44th, 71st, and 305th Infantry Divisions. On July 31st, the 44th Infantry was denied entry by the Italians, who claimed the rail network was too congested. The 26th Panzer Division, however, was conveyed the length of Italy easily enough. This was another of several inconsistencies which intensified suspicions of Italian duplicity.

[7] In less than three weeks of commanding the defense of Sicily, Kesselring had realized that the majority of Italian terrain would be ideally suited to forcing the steady and relentless attrition of Allied forces.

[8] Kesselring had received orders regarding the anticipated “defection” of Italy. In this event, he was to move units under his command in southern Italy north, then place them under Rommel’s command. Since November, 1941, he had been Commander-in-Chief South, and thus Rommel’s superior officer. Further, since October, 1942, he had been in direct command of all units in the Mediterraen Theater not under Rommel’s command. Clearly, Kesselring might have been expressing resentment of Hitler’s preference for Rommel. However, his resignation may have been a ruse to force the question of command in Italy to a decision. Hitler, distrustful of the complete confidence “Smiling Al” had in both the Badoglio government and the Italian Army, would have been content to accept his resignation and give overall command in Italy to Rommel if SS Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff had not spoken on Kesselring’s behalf. Wollf expressed a distrust of Rommel, and insisted that Kesselring’s presence in southern Italy would reduce the risk of Italian defections in that area. Hitler may well have been skeptical on both those points, but deferred. He had recently appointed Wolff Military Governor of Northern Italy, and had earlier appointed him to be Mussolini’s liaison with the SS. Wolff was also head of Gestapo activities in Italy, and nominally in command of any and all Waffen-SS units stationed in Italy. Thus, he was the only man in Italy for whose opinion Hitler had a higher regard than he had for Rommel’s.

[9] Vietinghoff had commanded the 15th Army in France since December 1941. Prior to that, he had served on the Eastern Front under Heinz Guderian and Fedor von Bock. Vietinghoff had commanded the 5th Panzer Division during the invasion of Poland.

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