Mussolini Excerpt – Final Post

Civita Castellana Today

Today we reach the end of our excerpt of  Stacy Danielle Stephens’ Mussolini chapters from her huge, amazing Historical work, which began a couple of weeks ago.  A sad day, but if you need more, all you need to do is wait for the book to come out (there will be a line for this one!).

When Ettore Rosso enlisted in the 3rd Engineer Regiment of the Italian Army in March, 1941, he was an experienced driller in a family oil business, and a college graduate. On June 16th, 1941, having completed basic training, he was given the rank of Sergeant, and on September 3rd, 1941, placed in command of a squad in the 4th Telegraph Battalion, responsible for installing and maintaining signal systems for the Italian Military Railroad in Yugoslavia. Early in 1942, he attended Officer Candidate School, and on March 15th, 1942, was commissioned a Lieutenant and given command of the 134th Engineer Company, attached to the Ariete Division.

A few hours after the armistice was announced, Rosso and his men received orders to lay down a minefield at Civita Castellana, thirty miles north of Rome. This made certain what was not yet official: The Germans were now the enemy.

* * *

By dawn, the 134th, tired as hell, had arrived at Civita Castellana  with a truckload of ordnance. Civilians on the scene confirmed what intelligence had already reported: The Germans were moving east, away from their prepared positions and away from Rome. Rosso and his men ate their field rations before setting to work. Had he lived, he may have faced a court martial for this fatal decision. When half-tracks of the 103rd Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion approached, the Italian mines intended to halt them were still in boxes, neatly stacked on the truck.

“We’ve received new orders,” the swaggering German colonel called out to Rosso as he came nearer on foot. The column under his command had stopped. “That business at Salerno is a ruse. We’re to move at once to the other side of Rome, and shield it from the primary assault.”

Rosso was struck once again by the chronic incredulity with which Germans told their lies. As if Italians were too stupid for any pretense to be worth the trouble.

“That might explain our orders,” Rosso lied. The German seemed convinced. “We must be meant to link up, so that you can cover our operations. Let me contact my superiors, just to be certain nothing is balled up.”

“I can give you fifteen minutes,” the German replied, glancing at his watch. “But let me be blunt. If you aren’t moving by that time, we will have to move you.”

“I understand you perfectly, Colonel,” Rosso said. His irony escaped the German. He ran toward his men, who were still awaiting instructions. “I need four of you,” he said, having already divided the number of mines in the truck by the number of minutes he had left, and knowing how many seconds a man would need to connect each of the mines, in series, to a single detonator. “No fathers, no husbands, just four single men.” Pietro Colombo, Gino Obici, Gelindo Trombini, and Augusto Zaccanti[1] were the first four to step forward. “Good, come with me, the rest of you spread out slowly and casually, far enough in ten minutes to be safe when this thing goes off. Then put covering fire on the crater and wreckage if the German engineers try to do anything about it. Let’s hope the rest of our division gets here before the rest of theirs does. Oh, and Sergeant Gallucio, I want you to make a show of attempting to communicate with headquarters[2].”

Armed only with pistols, the surviving engineers held the position until the 135th Armoured Cavalry Regiment, and the 19th Battalion of the 149th Artillery Regiment arrived. These were advance units of the Italian Ariete Armoured Division, under the command of Raffaele Cadorna[3]. The Ariete held the Panzergrenadiers there until Badoglio ordered them to Tivoli to guard the King’s evacuation[4] from Rome.

* * *

Upon receiving Kesselring’s signal, units of the German 1st Parachute Division, stationed in Bari, dispersed to carry out the order. Those Italian units in the region which had not already disbanded, immediately surrendered to the 1st Parachute. However, General Nicola Bellomo[5], commander of the regional militia, assembled a task force composed of enlisted men who still wished to fight the Germans, as well as non-combat support personnel, sailors on leave, local police, and civilians. With this force, he attacked the small number of Germans left in Bari, and drove them out after a two-hour battle, in which he was wounded. The Italians held Bari until the British arrived on the 11th.

* * *

As it turned out, there was no ship waiting for the Royal Entourage in Pescara, so they went to Guardiagrele for the night, and then to Ortuna the next morning. From there, a ship took them to Brindisi, where Badoglio could safely resume his official duties behind the protection of Britain’s First Airborne Division.

* * *

On the 10th, The Ariete went to Rome to support ten thousand civilians who were opposing the Germans. The civilians had been armed with rifles provided by a coalition of Socialist Parties, and were under the ad hoc command of Field Marshal Caviglia, who surrendered the city at 5 PM in response to Kesselring’s threat to send the Luftwaffe in to destroy Rome, which was beyond Allied fighter cover. The Ariete Division withdrew to Tivoli, where they surrendered the next day. By then, all other Italian units not remaining loyal to the Axis had either surrendered or been destroyed.

That a single Italian Armoured Division and ten thousand civilians led by two determined officers could force the Germans to resort to the threat of terror inclines one to regret that the 82nd did not land in Rome. However, one would do well to remember that it, too, would have been without fighter cover, and equally subject to German terror bombing. And without adequate fighter cover to protect the shipping necessary to support a continued operation in and around Rome, disaster could not have been avoided.

* * *

By September 12th, 1943, the Germans were sufficiently in control of Rome to launch Otto Skorzeny’s Ninety-man force from the Pratica di Mare airfield to “rescue” Mussolini from his hotel room on Gran Sasso di Italia. They might just as easily have sent two men in a car to pick him up. He was, in fact, being held there to ensure his personal safety, and Badoglio had given no further orders regarding what was to be done with him[6]. His guards were perfectly willing to remand him to the custody of the Germans, who would be better able to guarantee his safety than they themselves were.

1944 Partisans in Rome

Hitler was perfectly aware of this, but was also aware that a dramatic arrival would lend credibility to Skorzeny’s greeting, “Duce, I have come to rescue you!” A perfunctory transfer would not have impressed Mussolini, and would certainly not have inspired the sense of gratitude and loyalty Hitler intended to exploit[7].

* * *

Also on September 12th, from the comfort and security of his new headquarters in Brindisi, Badoglio ordered General Antonio Basso, commander of Italian forces in Sardinia, to oppose the withdrawal of the German 90th Panzergrenadier Division[8] to Corsica[9].

* * *

On September 13th, 1943, a regiment of the German 71st Infantry Division occupied Trieste and Pola. Although they would spend the next several weeks forcing Yugoslav partisans to withdraw from the area, their presence discouraged Italians stationed in Yugoslavia from returning to Italy[10].

* * *

“Men and women of Italy,” Mussolini said on September 18th, 1943, “after a long silence, my voice calls out to you, and I am sure you recognize it. It is the voice that has been with you in difficult times, and in the triumphant days of our patriotism.” He went on to inform the people of Italy that he would be leading them in a newly-formed Italian Republic. That he was broadcasting this wonderful news via Radio Munich told the Italian people, and the world, more than the announcement itself could.

* * *

On September 23rd, 1943, German Ambassador Rudolf Rahn, speaking on Radio Rome, announced the formation of the Italian Social Republic, with Benito Mussolini as its leader and Foreign Minister, Serafino Mazzolini his deputy-secretary for Foreign Affairs, and Rudolfo Graziani his War Minister[11].

That same day, from his headquarters in Garda, northwest of Verona, Erwin Rommel[12] issued this order: “Any sentimental second thoughts on the part of German soldiers towards members of Badoglio guerillas wearing the uniform of our former comrades-in-arms are entirely unsuitable. Any one of them fighting against German soldiers has given up any claim on our mercy and should be treated with the harshness such rabble deserve when they turn their weapons against their friends. This opinion must immediately become the general understanding of all the German forces.”

And the rest, as they say, is history…  But it is a history that you can only truly appreciate in Stacy’s forthcoming book!

[1] For their heroic sacrifice in the defense of Italy, these four would later be awarded the Medaglia d’Argento al Valor Militare. Rosso would be awarded the Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare.

[2] General Carboni would later claim that Rosso was acting under his personal orders. For this to be true, Carboni would have had to issue those orders in his sleep.

[3] Cadorna would later command Partisan activity in North-Central Italy. After the war, he would receive The Patriot’s Certificate and The Legion of Merit, and be appointed Chief-of-Staff of the Italian Army.

[4] Perhaps not co-incidentally, Badoglio was traveling with the King.

[5] British MPs arrested Bellomo on January 28, 1944. On November 30th, 1941, he had allegedly ordered sentries to shoot two British officers, George Payne and Roy Cooke, who had escaped and been recaptured. At his court martial, on July 28, 1945, he was sentenced to death for having those two prisoners shot. He was executed by firing squad on September 11, 1945, at the British Military Prison on Nisida. In February, 1946, at a second court martial concerning the same incident, Captain Sommavilla, Commandant of the POW camp, was acquitted, because several of the sentries who did the actual shooting testified that Bellomo had given the order. Of course, neither he nor Sommavilla were in any position to contradict them.

In February, 1941, when Italian civilians were about to kill seven British parachutists they had captured, Bellomo arrived on the scene just in time to save their lives.

[6] Although the full armistice terms required that Mussolini be “surrendered into the hands of the United Nations,” Badoglio was apparently not informed of this until September 29th.

[7] Mussolini would spend the night at the Imperial Hotel, Vienna, and would be flown to Rastenburg, in East Prussia, on the 14th. There, on the 15th, Hitler would acquaint him with his new duties as the Duce and Foreign Minister of La Repubblica Sociale Italiana.

[8] The remnants of the 90th Light Infantry Division had been sent to Sardinia, where it was re-equipped, reorganized, and then designated the 90th Panzergrenadier Division.

[9] On September 9th, General Ambrosio, in Rome, had ordered Basso to allow them to leave. By the 12th, the Germans had secured their escape route, with the assistance of two battalions of Italian paratroops and an Italian coastal artillery unit stationed at La Maddalena. Many of the 180,000 men under Basso’s command, already poorly equipped and short of rations, self-demobilized in the first few days of the Armistice. The German withdrawal was completed by the 17th. In October, 1944, Basso would be arrested for failing to follow these orders, but acquitted at his trial, in June, 1946.

[10] While the majority of Italian forces in Yugoslavia were killed or taken prisoner by the Germans, three divisions, in Albania and Montenegro, promptly sided with the partisans they had originally been sent there to suppress. Those Italians who escaped the Germans were generally compelled by circumstances to join the partisans wherever they could find them, although a small number managed to return to Italy individually.

[11] Not even Spain would formally recognize this republic.

[12] Rommel commanded German units in Northern Italy, primarily concerned with maintaining order in the industrial centres of Italy and securing supply routes for Kesselring’s forces in Southern Italy.

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