mussolini

Eventually, the War Ended

rome-open-city-1945-700x987

Even in Italy, a country that was, to a degree ravaged by both sides in WWII, the conflict eventually came to an end, and things went back to normal, even to the point where politically charged films could be made.

Of course, the open wound that directors could stick their cameras into was the memory of the war itself and the deep divisions in Italian society.  So for our next film from the 1001 films to see before you die, we give you Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City), the first of Roberto Rossellini‘s Neorrealist films, and probably the most raw.

It’s a film about fear and loyalty–both extreme loyalty and the confused, divided kind–as well as about betrayal, and the cost of not being true.

It’s also a film about strange bedfellows in which we see a Catholic Priest share the fate of a Communist revolutionary, and women dying alongside their men.

All of these effects are heightened by how it looks.  The lack of availability of adequate processing facilities as well as the difficulty in obtaining film stock means that the imagery isn’t of the quality one expected from the era; at times, it looks more like a war documentary filmed at the front than the output of a studio.

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The one criticism that has been leveled against it is valid: this is more of a melodramatic piece than an unflinching slice of realism.  But even that works in the film’s favor, making it more powerful than a pure expression of realist ideas could have achieved.

But powerful as what?  This isn’t so much an anti-war film as one that decries the hypocrisy of humanity.  I feel that, melodrama aside, it shrugs its shoulders at the way we are… and therein lies its ultimate success, and its capacity to be classified as neorrealist.

It’s impossible to analyze it further without spoilers, but this truly is a film that everyone should see.  People haven’t changed since it was made, after all.

 

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“Whenever I make a film that’s for war, you can take me out and shoot me.”

 

by Stacy Ketcham, Omaha Chronotype-Mercury War Correspondent in Italy*

 

Italian Colonial Exposition 1940

Buildings of the 1940 Italian Overseas Exposition before the war

December 26, 1943 With US Army 21st General Hospital, Mostra Fairgrounds, Bagnoli. Italy–Candidates for the Purple Heart in recognition of battlefield wounds in Italy will now pass in review under the eyes of no less famous a figure than Benito Mussolini. His face, substantially larger than life, is prominent in a mural at the Albanian pavilion of his 1940 Colonial Exposition, an extravaganza intended to modestly showcase his glorious achievements as Italy’s leader. The immodest number of bullet holes which mar his likeness manage to render the image pleasant enough for medical personnel to work in view of it in what is now the surgical area of an Army Hospital, and few of the soldiers they attend to take the time to look up at the man who still looks down on them.
Just three weeks ago, as the Third and Forty-fifth Infantry Divisions began crossing the Volturno River, the men and women of this hospital, more than four thousand of them, began crossing the Mediterranean, bringing with them more than three thousand crates of medical supplies and equipment, to set up shop in this new location, right outside of Naples, and only thirty miles from the front lines. This proximity relieves much of the pressure on field hospitals even closer to the front, and allows greater flexibility in determining the best treatment for urgent and critical cases.
This proximity also allows wounded men to be brought directly from the battlefield to what is literally the newest, most modern hospital in the world, And Il Duce allows these men to recover in good humor; the post-op room was originally a memorial to Italy’s brave soldiers, most of whom have now surrendered or simply discarded their uniforms and quietly gone home. No man, regardless of whether he is American, British, or any of the other nationalities now fighting with the allies in Italy, has failed to find this amusing.
Another thing every man has found amusing is discovering what knockouts some of these nurses can be. To free every available doctor for surgery, a number of nurses volunteered to learn how to administer anaesthesia. I found it reassuring to see a man wounded less than an hour earlier ask his anesthetist if she’d go out with him after he recovered. Her only reply was a smile; before she could have spoken a word, he was unconscious.

* * *

There were, of course, a number of things I couldn’t mention in this column without risk of undermining the war effort. I couldn’t say that this man, like many battlefield casualties, was in shock. Nor could I say that, like most battlefield casualties, he had not been told how badly he was wounded. If he’d been wounded before, he might have known how unusual it was for the anaesthesia to be injected into the neck, rather than an arm or a leg. But he no longer had arms and legs. That was something else I couldn’t mention.

And this is only one hospital, Erich Maria Remarque had written. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this… A hospital alone shows what war is.

I remembered that as I typed, but still sent my column.

* * *

Dusk was well upon us by the time I stepped outside. I was nominally billeted in a field hospital nurses tent a few miles away, and wondering if I should try to find a closer place to sleep for the night or hope for a ride when I noticed a jeepload of clean uniforms heading my way. Replacements going somewhere, I supposed, until they stopped in front of me. A Signal Corps Captain looked at my armband, then spoke up.

“We were in San Pietro before anybody,” he said, with the tone of a man in shell shock. “There’d been an attack and a counterattack in the night, and there were just hundreds and hundreds of dead.”

What had he expected to find after a battle, confetti? I didn’t ask, I just stood there listening to the motor of the jeep idling, and glanced at the newsreel cameras on the floor of the jeep.

“Battalion?” the driver asked, a trace of Yiddish to the question, somehow. I pointed and the jeep was moving again.

I don’t know when I finally realized I’d met John Huston that evening. Certainly not by May of 1945, when I saw the Army’s fiercely edited two-reel release of the battlefield documentary Frank Capra had sent him to film.

* * *

On the Road to San Pietro

US Tank destroyed attempting to enter San Pietro

How do you create the cinematic documentation of a battle when you weren’t there until the battle was over, and the first thing you find when you do arrive is hundreds and hundreds of dead? Of course, a critic, particularly if he’s never directed a movie or been anywhere near a battlefield littered with corpses, many of them fragmentary, will say you fabricate the whole thing. Yes, anyone can recognize that John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro was a re-enactment, for the most part, with no particular effort made to capture realism in the scenes depicting the battles. Even the men shot in the five-reel original were staging their deaths. The only aspect of the film which was genuine and even in the least candid was the part Huston experienced personally on the first morning of filming. The corpses, even when repositioned for effect, or to keep the grotesquely distorted faces, if they were American, out of view, were absolutely real. They were not extras, they were the stars of the film, and Huston, editing either version, must have calculated how much carnage could be tolerated by the typical audience without blunting their sensitivity to what they were being shown, and how much of this brutal depiction of a brutal reality was necessary to validate his own statement, as the movie approaches its close, “These lives were valuable–valuable to their loved ones, to their country, and to the men themselves.”

* * *

The officers for whom Huston screened his original edit all walked out in quick succession, but George Marshall, who had to concern himself not only with morale, but also with the more difficult issues of desertion and combat fatigue, decided that a shorter edit of Huston’s stark depiction of battle would be an appropriate training film. Marshall was pleased by this version of the film, with a brief introduction by General Mark Clark, and Huston was promoted to Major.

* * *

The wind and snow on Christmas Eve were answers to prayer. Everyone’s prayer. The Germans–those still alive–were glad of something to cover their retreat. And those Americans still alive were glad of the excuse to let them slip away. The battle per se of San Pietro had been over for a week, and the 3rd Infantry was taking up forward positions in relief of what remained of the 36th. There had been a flood of T-patchers in the field hospital, and from those able and willing to talk, I’d pieced together a story that still needed a lot of window dressing and white washing before it could be typed up and cabled home.

Essentially, the Germans had built their own little Maginot Line from Lincoln Logs. A series of fortified foxholes with nearly perfect defilade and concealment, protected by alternating layers of barbed wire and land mines. Further, each of these could only be approached by a single man scraping his short hairs in the mud. Covering fire could be provided, but only carefully; more of his boots and buttocks were exposed to that fire than the whole of the German position. As I said, there were a vast series of these strung along the mountainside, interlocking in a pattern something like the teeth of a circular ripsaw. The flank had to be turned, and the 143rd Regiment had begun doing that in early December, scaling a mountainside in the face of mortar and machine gun fire which could excoriate the landscape without being aimed. The Germans knew the Americans were there. When that mountainside had been secured, and this in a relative sense, the assault itself began, one American at a time, approaching each in this series of small fortifications, until somebody was lucky enough to get a grenade in before another man had to pull him back, wounded or killed. You can imagine that casualties were high, but even I had not imagined how high.

* * *

I’d been to Mass that morning with the 100th Battalion; Japanese Americans from Hawaii, attached to the 36th. From the small number there, I’d assumed that only a few of them were Catholic.

Technically, the 36th was still at the front, but through the good offices of the 3rd Division and cooperation of the momentarily defeated Germans, the front was moving away, allowing the T-patchers to enjoy their Christmas dinner of C-rations on the hood of a jeep, or to gather around an impromptu Christmas tree chosen from among the myriad fragments of trees scattered by two weeks of uninterrupted combat. Their trees were decorated with strips of their C-ration’s foil packaging, usually discarded, but now kept and carefully torn to form tinsel garland.

In the early evening, as darkness became definite, I noticed four candles at the opening of several tents knotted together at the grommets, forming a shelter large enough for half a dozen men to gather. I went to it.

“Are you Jewish, Ma’am?” one of the Texans asked.

“My mother was.”

“Then I guess you are.” He tapped a wooden board, covered by a surprisingly clean white cloth. As I sat where he had indicated, each of the boys pushed a few of their piled M&Ms toward me. Then the one who had greeted me handed me the dreidel.

* * *

“Are you the reporter, Ma’am?” a voice behind me asked. The Jewish soldiers and I had been pushing M&Ms back forth for about an hour.

“Yes,” I said, turning around to see an NCO from Divisional HQ.

“You’ve had clerical experience?”

“Yes,” I said, now getting up. The two of us left, and he led me toward a jeep cleaner than most I’d seen that day. We sat in it.

“A battalion clerk has a problem,” he said. “You might be able to help, if you’re willing.”

“Yes, of course.”

We drove further from the front. Perhaps ten minutes, arriving at a farm building labeled as Bn HQ. He led me inside, where I saw a clerk, his head resting on a typewriter, weeping profusely. I wouldn’t have believed a clerk this far from the front could have combat fatigue, but that’s exactly what it looked like. There were packages piled up, filling nearly three-quarters of the office.

“You need help delivering these?” I asked.

“No Ma’am,” the driver said. “We need you to draw a line through the address of each one, and mark it KIA.”

I was on the floor, sitting, wondering if I’d fainted. Amid the fog, slowly dispersing it, I heard President Roosevelt, his voice crackling on the radio.

“We ask that God receive and cherish those who have given their lives, and that He keep them in honor and in the grateful memory of their countrymen forever. God bless all of you who fight our battles on this Christmas Eve.”

I reached up. The driver handed me a pen.

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

I nodded. He left as I grabbed the first package. The clerk was still weeping over his typewriter when I finished, just past dawn, my hand stiff and fingers numb.

* * *

When the 36th Infantry Division returned to the front line in January, 1944, 80% of its men had been in the Division less than two weeks.

 

 

 

*This is actually an excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens amazing WW2 magnum opus, very intimately linked to this post.

Rheinland – Part 2

Germany and the Rheinland

Today brings the second and final part of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ excerpt about the Rheinland incident in the years prior to World War II.  As always, a fascinating glimpse beyond the dates and facts and into the minds of the principal actors.

“I know what it is,” Foreign Minister Laval said to his staffers as he pushed aside the map they had asked him to look at. “A lot of sand. And a lot of rocks.”

He would be leaving on January 3rd, 1935, to meet with Mussolini. He intended to give up a lot of sand and rocks near the Libyan border with French Equatorial Africa in the hope that Mussolini would abandon long-standing Italian claims against Tunisia. Laval also hoped to sustain Mussolini’s disenchantment with Hitler, who had not made a good impression on Il Duce at their first meeting. The friction between them regarding Austria was the sort of thing Laval could exploit to France’s advantage.

“It’s nothing but desert,” Mussolini observed, when he saw the map of it himself on January 4th.

“There are probably a few villages in there,” Laval grinned. There was no pretense about him, Mussolini realized. He had brought sand and rocks, and wouldn’t pretend they were anything else.

“You, Duce,” Laval resumed speaking when he noticed the gleam of appreciation in Mussolini’s eyes, “rule Italy without restraint. I don’t rule France. My boss doesn’t even rule France. If you really want these negotiations between our two countries to succeed, I have to return home with something that will stand up to public opinion, something that will be endorsed by the press. You’re in a position to give me something like that; you have the prerogative to be generous.”

He was a hard-bitten, hard-boiled lout, but in contrast to British or German Ministers, he could be liked, although he was no less conniving than they. The point, really, and Mussolini understood this, was the appearance of concession, which would bring with it good press and a bit of prestige. It was enough to clinch the bargain which Laval and Mussolini had really been after: an agreement that if Hitler again attempted to seize Austria, the French army would support Italian action against him, and that if Hitler moved his army into the demilitarized Rheinland, the Italian Air Force would support French action against him.

Early in February, Laval went to London, where he reaffirmed his commitment to a Pact with the Soviet Union without clarifying whether or not Czechoslovakia would be a co-signatory. British statesmen, regardless of which party was in office at any moment, mistrusted any series of interlocking treaty obligations, always bearing in mind the stacked-rifle effect that had played out in the summer of 1914. A pistol-shot in Prague might all too easily replicate the avalanche of events spawned at Sarajevo[1].

When Laval had returned to France, Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg came to Paris to discuss the defense of Austria with him. Because the Socialist Parties of Austria and France had recently allied themselves with one another,  Léon Blum called for public demonstrations against the Austrian Fascist.

As a pragmatic negotiator bargaining for the survival of France, Laval did not concern himself with ideology, particularly if that ideology could only weaken and isolate France.

* * *

heinkel he-51

In March 1935, Hitler announced, in two separate statements, the existence of the Luftwaffe, and the reinstatement of Military Conscription in Germany. He intended to create thirty-six army divisions forming twelve corps. It was Hitler’s contention that this action would somehow make a European War less likely, and that it would make Germany better able to co-operate in the international peace process.

At about this same time, French Prime Minister Pierre-Étienne Flandin was attempting to increase France’s required length of military service to two years, which was necessary to make up for the smaller number of draft-age men available in France[2]. When this was brought to a vote in the French Parliament, it was seen as an escalating response to Hitler’s action, but it had been months in developing, as Flandin had had to overcome Socialist opposition to the change.

* * *

On May 15th, 1935, Paul Reynaud proposed the creation of an Armoured Corps along the lines presented the year before by Colonel De Gaulle in his book, Toward a Professional Army. Léon Blum was among those who argued against Reynaud’s proposal; it was defeated by a large majority[3].

* * *

Kriegsmarine Recruitment Poster

On June 18th, 1935, Britain and Germany signed a naval agreement limiting the displacement tonnage of the Kriegsmarine to thirty-five percent of the Royal Navy’s. Neither France nor Italy had been informed of the negotiations leading to this treaty, nor did either nation approve it.

This was not the first time Germany had violated the Versailles Treaty, but it was the first instance of collusion by a second nation in a German treaty violation. And while neither Laval nor Mussolini could, on principle, find fault with self-interested duplicity in an ally, both men felt that the Anglo-German Naval Agreement  had given the lie to the united front the three powers had presented at Stresa; this was, undoubtedly, Hitler’s purpose. Germany had no need for colonies, and little use for a surface navy, but everything to gain in alienating the British from their former allies.

* * *

Knowing that Mussolini had agreed to send the Italian Air Force in support of the French army if France opposed a German attempt to reoccupy the demilitarized Rheinland, Hitler had instructed the German Embassy in Rome to watch Mussolini’s mood closely, to determine if he would still abide by that agreement after the failure of the Hoare-Laval plan. On February 22nd, 1936, ambassador Ulrich von Hassell notified Berlin that Mussolini had at last changed his mind, not only about the Rheinland, but Austria as well.

In Berlin on Monday, March 2nd, Adolf Hitler met with the French ambassador, promising to have concrete proposals for an understanding between their countries the next time the two men met. On Friday, March 6th, Hermann Goering called a meeting of the Reichstag for noon the next day while Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels brought the foreign press to a hotel, where they “attended a news conference” until late the following morning.

At dawn on Saturday, March 7th, 1936, elements of the Wehrmacht entered the demilitarized zone of Western Germany known as the Rheinland. The 22,000 men taking part in this were in uniform and lightly armed, but were transported in non-military vehicles, and had been instructed to halt and withdraw if they encountered any opposition from the French army, although this possibility was considered to be highly unlikely.

When the meeting of the Reichstag had been called to order, Hitler began speaking, first giving more than half an hour to a summary of German History as understood by the Nazi Party. Then he took a moment to make a cryptic reference to the Polish Corridor before discussing “The German Question” at length.

The salient point in this portion of his speech was his statement that “the German Reich Government has today re-established the full and unlimited sovereignty of the Reich in the demilitarized zone of the Rheinland.” Among his conclusions was that returning the German army to the Rheinland was in the best interests of France in particular, and of Europe in general, since it was a necessary part of his opposition to Bolshevism, and to restoring the German nation. As a vouchsafe of his sincerity, he proposed the establishment of a new mutually demilitarized zone, which, quite by coincidence, would require French forces to withdraw from the Maginot Line.

Before Hitler had finished speaking to the Reichstag, the Polish government notified France that they were prepared to adhere to their alliance, and requested an immediate discussion to determine what actions should be taken.

On Sunday, March 8th, French Prime Minister Sarraut addressed the nation via radio, assuring them that the German threat would not be tolerated. However, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s only communication to Sarraut was to say that although Britain would support France in the event of an attack, he was concerned that action against the Germans might result in Germany “going Bolshevik”.

On Monday, March 9th, having not heard from their French allies, the Polish government was the first to endorse the German remilitarization of the Rheinland in an announcement stating that Hitler’s action was an appropriate response to the French alliance with the Soviet Union[4].

On Wednesday, March 11th, Sarraut announced that France would not take unilateral action against Germany, but would bring the matter to the League of Nations in conjunction with other signatories of the Locarno Pact. Neither the League nor the Pact acted against Hitler.

[1] That this attitude aided and abetted Hitler’s step-by-step plans for Europe was, from the British perspective, an unfortunate yet irrelevant coincidence.

[2] From 1915-1919, the birthrate was half what it had previously been, so that by the 1930s, France faced an increasing shortage of manpower.

[3] Although France had had more tanks than Germany all along, France had no Armored Divisions until January of 1940, several months after the validity of De Gaulle’s ideas had been demonstrated in Poland by the Wehmacht.

[4] It should be noted that Poland had a mutual assistance pact with Germany as well as with France. In the absence of communication from France, the Poles felt that standing back to back with Hitler was probably safer than facing him alone with their backs to the Soviet Union.

Rheinland – Part 1

Edouard Daladier

Lost among the striking images we have of World War II are the often even more important political maneuvers that took place among political leaders before and during the war.  This fascinating chess game is often overlooked, which is unfortunate.  Luckily, however, we have access to excerpts from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ monumental historical novel about the war – and she knows exactly how to highlight the important parts of that political history – whether it be in Europe, Asia, Africa or America.

Today, she takes us on a quick tour of the big picture as things began to heat up.

Édouard Daladier had become Prime Minister of France on January 31st, 1933. In March, Polish Dictator Marshal Piłsudski had suggested to him that Poland and France should together attack Germany and depose Hitler. Daladier, however, preferred the Four Powers Pact[1] Mussolini proposed on March 19th, 1933. When Deladier signed the Four Powers Pact, in June, 1933, Piłsudski decided it was time for Poland to come to terms with Hitler, and began negotiating a German-Polish non-aggression pact.

* * *

Adolf Hitler’s most unpopular act in his first year as Chancellor was a ten-year pact signed by Polish Ambassador Lipski in Berlin on January 26th, 1934, pledging mutual non-aggression between Germany and Poland[2], including a promise to defend each other against attack.

In France at this same time, a financial scandal brought down the government headed by Camille Chautemps. A new government formed by Édouard Deladier on February 6th was brought down by rioting that same evening[3].

On February 9th, Gaston Doumergue was named Prime Minister, and Pierre Laval was appointed Minister of Colonies.

On February 12th, Labour Unions in France had called for a national strike to protest the demonstrations of February 6th. Communists and Socialists also co-operated in the protest, working together for the first time in twelve years. It was a germinal moment for what would become the Popular Front.

* * *

“At a time when all of us have but the one earnest desire to heal the wounds of the past decades in peaceful cooperation with other nations,” Hitler was concluding his speech of March 7th, 1934, “we are happy to give to the world a visible demonstration of the background of the problems which concern us today and proof of the skill with which we master them. Thus I am happy and proud to declare the International Automobile Exhibition of 1934 in Berlin open to the public.”

In a later interview, Hitler told Louis Lochner that “the aim and the purpose of all progress must be to make a nation as a whole, and humanity as a whole, happier than before.”

Hitler wanted German automakers to mass-produce an automobile the average German could afford. Of course, the new factories necessary to build several million autos could be retooled to produce several thousand tanks or aircraft easily enough.

* * *

De Gaulle - Toward a Professional Army

In May of 1934, Colonel Charles De Gaulle’s book, Toward a Professional Army, was published in France. In it, he proposed the creation of an elite force capable of deadly strikes[4]. This force would total seven divisions composed of men serving six year enlistments, rather than the eighteen-month conscription which was the standard in France at the time. Six of these divisions would be armoured, with one regiment each of heavy and medium tanks, supported by a battalion of light tanks for reconnaissance, as well as engineers and artillery. The seventh division would be mechanized infantry.

De Gaulle’s book was not well received by the army overall, because it defied standard military procedures, and because his proposals were not compatible with France’s reserve system. It was even less well received by the general public, because a professional army was considered reminiscent of the military coup that had ended the Second Republic in 1851, and which re-established the French Empire[5].

* * *

On June 14th, 1934, Hitler flew to Venice to meet with Benito Mussolini. Although they made several public appearances over the course of three days, they spoke privately, without keeping any record of their discussions.

Time Magazine reported that the only official statement the two dictators made, issued after Hitler had returned to Germany, was that they had begun a “cordial spiritual collaboration,” but also reported that the two were rumoured to have come to an agreement concerning Austria.

* * *

Engelbert Dolfuss Assassination

On July 25th, 1934, Austrian Nazis assassinated Chancellor[6] Engelbert Dollfuss. Guessing that this was an attempt at Anschluss, Mussolini moved several army units to the Austrian border, indicating that German intervention in Austria would not be permitted. Obviously, the two dictators had failed to come to an agreement regarding Austria.

The assassins were apprehended in Vienna and executed. Kurt Schuschnigg became Chancellor of Austria.

[1] A plan under which Britain, France, Germany and Italy would arbitrate border adjustments between or among European nations. Mussolini’s intent was to obtain French and British assistance securing the borders of his Austrian and Hungarian allies against Hitler. The Poles and Czechoslovakians saw it as a weakening of collective security and an accommodation of Hitler at their expense. That France, with the construction of the Maginot Line, appeared to be planning for a defensive war against Germany, which would leave Hitler at liberty to attack France’s allies, greatly reinforced this perception. The French Parliament never ratified the Four Powers Pact.

[2] This meant that the western half of Prussia, as well as the small sections of Pomerania and Silesia which had been taken away under the Versailles Treaty could not be wrested from Polish administration by force until 1944. As it happened, the Polish Corridor would be the least of Germany’s concerns by 1944.

[3] Deladier, a Radical, had dismissed a conservative police official. Conservative protesters attempted to seize the Chamber of Deputies. It is not clear what their intentions were, but the establishment of a provisional fascist government was among the possibilities. One police officer and fourteen rioting civilians were killed in the mêlée, and more than a thousand injured.

[4] Foudre mortelle; literally, mortal lightning.

[5] Toward a Professional Army was highly regarded in Germany, where its principles were not only embraced, but enthusiastically applied when Hitler later created Panzer divisions capable of lightning war.

[6] He was in practice a dictator, modeling his “Austrofascism” after Mussolini’s example, having also aligned his government with Italy.

Ethiopia in WWII – Part 2

haile selassie

Today we bring you the second part of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ story of Ethiopia in WWII from her monumental historical novel.  We’re certain you’ll enjoy it as much as we did!

On November 14th, 1935, Stanley Baldwin’s Tories won what would be the last general election to be held in the UK for nearly ten years. Baldwin again sent his foreign minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, to Paris, where he met with Laval on December 7th. By the following day, the two of them had devised what would be known as the Hoare-Laval Plan[1]. It was a potential compromise affording both Mussolini and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellasie a way out of a war which was not especially promising for either of them. More importantly, it would have precluded Hitler’s wooing a disgraced Mussolini away from the allies who had allowed his misstep to become an embarrassment.

Put simply, the plan would have given Mussolini a portion of Ethiopia, with which he could declare victory and promote Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel to the rank of Emperor. In exchange for this territorial concession, the remainder of Ethiopia would be left intact and independent, and spared the further ravages of a continued war. Unfortunately, a French official gave copies of the plan to a pair of reporters. Details of it were published in the Daily Telegraph in London, and by two papers in Paris.

As a work of statesmanship, the plan was unparalleled, and, since everybody got something, it typified what Laval had always sought in every dispute he’d had to arbitrate. But in Britain and France, as well as in the US, the public perceived it as what it was: a compromise. In strictly moral terms, it was utterly wrong.

On December 17th, Laval’s government narrowly survived a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies. By December 27th, Paul Reynaud, leading the conservative Democratic Alliance, and Léon Blum, leading the Socialists, had joined the opposition against him, and the vote of confidence they called for was even closer than it had been ten days earlier.

On January 22nd, 1936, while Laval himself was in Geneva, the Radical-Socialist Party withdrew its support, and his government fell. On January 24th, Albert Sarraut was named Prime Minister of France.

* * *

In Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday, June 30th, 1936, Edvard Beneš, President of the Assembly, called the meeting to order, and then resigned. Belgian Prime Minister, Paul van Zeeland, came forward to take his place and continued with the next order of business, an appeal to the League from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Although Italy had withdrawn its delegation from the League on May 12th, 1936, there were still journalists from Italy in the audience. They began jeering the moment Selassie was introduced. Nicolae Titulescu, the permanent representative of Romania to the League, immediately stood and shouted, “A la Porte, les Sauvages![2]” When the offending parties had been removed, Selassie began speaking[3].

“I, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to claim that justice which is due to my people, and the assistance promised to us,” he began. “There is no precedent for a Head of State himself speaking in this assembly. But there is also no precedent for a people being victim of such injustice and being at present threatened by abandonment to its aggressor.”

For the first several minutes, he summarized the atrocities which had occurred in the aggression against his nation, reminding the League that they themselves had defined Italy’s actions as aggression, and condemned them, but taken no real action to end them. And he assured the League that the atrocities which had been reported to them were factual; that he had witnessed them himself.

In the concluding minutes of his address, he explained that the League’s concern was really no longer the survival of Ethiopia, but of the League itself, and that international morality was at stake. “Placed by the aggressor face to face with the accomplished fact, are States going to set the terrible precedent of bowing before force?” he asked. “And the great Powers who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small States on whom weighs the threat that they may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia, I ask what measures do you intend to take?

“I have come to Geneva to discharge in your midst the most painful of the duties of a head of State,” he concluded. “What reply shall I have to take back to my people?”

The League of Nation’s only response was a decision by the League Council, on July 4th, to suspend economic sanctions against Italy. Fighting in Ethiopia had ended sixty days earlier.

* * *

italian troops in ethipioa with mussolini flag

Ethiopia was the final African nation to be subdued by a European power. Italy had last attempted this subduction forty years earlier, but on March 1, 1896, the Ethiopians had defeated and humiliated the Italians at the battle of Adwa. At that time, there were public disturbances in every Italian city, and full-scale riots in both Naples and Rome. Police were unable to disperse the crowd that continuously threw rocks at Prime Minister Crispi’s office, and when the army was sent to quell the riot, civilians barricaded the rail lines, preventing the army from intervening. Crispi resigned on March 14th, 1896, and King Umberto declared a national day of mourning.

* * *

In 1936, Italy was again humiliated, even though Ethiopia had been defeated. Italy’s mismanagement of the war in the first several months allowed the Ethiopians to inflict heavy casualties and impede Italian advances, in spite of being poorly equipped and inadequately supplied. When Mussolini resorted to the widespread use of poison gas against civilians and non-military targets, the profound American goodwill Air Marshal Balbo had established at Chicago in 1933 was irretrievably lost, and throughout 1936, at every theater in the US, if Haile Selassie appeared in a newsreel, the audience applauded and cheered.

And while most Italians were pleased and proud to be citizens of what was now an empire, even such a limited war was beyond Italy’s capacities. Mussolini had blamed economic hardships on the League of Nations embargo, but it had been largely ineffective, and once it was lifted, it became increasingly clear that Italy would not soon recover from building its empire, and could never recover the costs incurred by Mussolini’s disastrous victory.

* * *

That Edvard Beneš resigned as President of the Assembly on June 30th, 1936, was not coincidence. He was also President of Czechoslovakia, a country whose independence and sovereignty were guaranteed, as Ethiopia’s had been, by Britain and France.

[1] Except for the specific portion of Ethiopia ceded to Italy, Breckinridge Long, US ambassador to Italy, had drawn up an identical plan immediately prior to the Italian invasion.

[2] Show those hooligans the door. Literally, To the door, these savages. King Carol of Romania removed Titulescu from all official assignments shortly afterward.

[3] He spoke in Amharic. The quotations are from a translated text.

Ethiopia in WW2 – Part 1

Italian Flying Boat Lands in Chicago

Today we continue our excerpts of Stacy Danielle Stephens excellent historical novel.  Apart from bringing the war to a human level, she has a knack for finding and writing vividly about things that are mostly ignored by the canned histories that came later.  One great example is the segment about the USS Greer that we ran previously – another is this post.

On July 15, 1933, two dozen Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55 flying boats, under the command of Air Marshal Italo Balbo, landed on Lake Michigan. It was easily the most dramatic and popularly acclaimed arrival of a foreign military officer in American history. Meeting later with Charles Lindbergh and having lunch with President Roosevelt, Balbo captivated the imaginations and won the hearts of the majority of Americans.

* * *

On December 9th, 1934, at Wal Wal, in southern Abyssinia, Italian Dubats[1] encountered Camel-mounted Ethiopian soldiers. There was an exchange of fire, in which the number of Italian dead increased as the weeks went by. Flatly ruling out arbitration, Mussolini demanded that the Ethiopian government make immediate reparations.

On January 3, 1935, Ethiopia appealed to the League of Nations for arbitration. For the next several months, each commission, committee, or subcommittee to which the matter was referred recommended that Ethiopia submit to arbitration[2], then referred the matter to another commission, committee or subcommittee.

* * *

The conference at Stresa, Italy, which began on April 11th, 1935, was a response to Hitler’s cumulative treaty violations. Mussolini and Fulvio Suvich, Italian Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, met with French Prime Minister Pierre-Étienne Flandin and French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval, as well as Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and Foreign Minister Sir John Simon of Britain. After several days of discussion, the group agreed that “maintaining the independence and integrity of Austria would continue to inspire their common policy” and that they would “act in close and cordial collaboration” to oppose “by all practicable means, any unilateral repudiation of treaties which may endanger the peace of Europe.”

Pierre Laval

Apparently, the minutes of the meeting as recorded by British clerks indicate that the words “of Europe” had been agreed upon from the beginning. French and Italian sources recall that Mussolini later requested they be added. Much has been made over this point, but in either case, it is clear that France and Britain were standing behind–or, more accurately, hiding behind–the precedent established at the League of Nations. Since the peace of Europe depended upon Italy’s support for Austrian independence, Mussolini had every reason to believe that the agreement signed in Stresa was a quid pro quo, giving him carte blanche against Ethiopia.

* * *

League of Nations Meeting

In May, while he was still only Foreign Minister, Laval had persuaded the League of Nations to postpone for three months any decisions regarding Italy’s provocations of Ethiopia[3]. In August, as Prime Minister, Laval had to find a way to appease the League of Nations while keeping Mussolini as an ally poised against Hitler, but already, Léon Blum had coined the phrase, “With Mussolini, it is not a question of wrongs, but of crimes,” and the Socialists had taken it up as a slogan. The prevailing consensus in every corner of France, as well as Britain, was that Mussolini must be condemned and Ethiopia supported through, and in concert with, the League of Nations.

Knowing Laval’s reputation for negotiating the impossible into mere difficulties, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin sent his foreign minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, to Paris, with no further instructions than to push Laval to his limits and keep Britain out of war.

Hoare began the discussion with a suggestion that Britain and France attempt to get an agreement from the Germans limiting the size of the Luftwaffe[4]. He then mentioned, almost casually, that while keeping Mussolini[5] in opposition to Hitler was quite desirable, his government would have to stand behind the League.

Laval acknowledged that he was in the same bind, but wanted to know if Britain would stop at sanctions, or actually go to war with Italy if the league called for it. Hoare said that Britain had no intention of going to war. Laval expressed doubts about sanctions being anything more than an annoyance to Italy, since Germany, Japan, and the United States weren’t bound by the League’s decisions, and also expressed his gravest concern; that Mussolini might be “driven into the German camp.”

Nothing had been decided, and Laval was less certain of British support for France than he had been before the meeting. Hoare, meanwhile, addressed the League of Nations, calling for unity without mentioning any specific actions, or revealing what part Britain intended to play in that unity. It was nonetheless clear that Baldwin’s government hoped it could stand solidly behind Ethiopia and the League of Nations, but at a very comfortable distance.

* * *

On August 31st, 1935, President Roosevelt signed the Neutrality Act, which had passed both houses of Congress by majorities that approached unanimous. It established the licensing and registration of arms manufacturers in the US, and provided for an embargo of arms shipments to foreign governments at war. It also restricted travel by US citizens on vessels of other nations at war.

The President also announced that the US would not abide by any League of Nations sanctions against Italy. Since shipments of petroleum were not restricted by the Neutrality Act, and Ethiopia did not have money to purchase weapons even if they could have been exported from the US, the Neutrality Act of 1935 was essentially supporting Mussolini while purporting otherwise, and served as public notice that if the League of Nations were forming a posse, the US would not be riding in it.

* * *

On September 8th, 1935, Laval telegraphed London, asking how Britain would respond if Germany seized the moment and attacked Austria. On September 11th, he sent a telegram to Rome, reminding Mussolini that France was obligated to act in accordance with the League of Nations. Laval received no reply to either telegram.

On October 3rd, 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia.

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[1] Irregular auxiliaries in the Italian Colonial Army.

[2] It was Ethiopia which was seeking arbitration, and Italy which was refusing it.

[3] Mussolini appears to have interpreted this as an endorsement of his intentions toward Ethiopia. This may well have been Laval’s intent.

[4] What led Hoare to assume this would be an effective ice-breaker is anyone’s guess.

[5] Hoare was under the mistaken impression that Laval and Mussolini had a long-standing personal friendship,

The Greek Campaign

Italian Fiat Tank Captured By Greek Forces

Today we have another amazing excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ Historical novel about WWII.  If you like what you see here please remember that Stacy’s Bismarck series is also available here, as are many other parts of her novel!

To a great extent, Poland is a vast flat expanse, an immense village square set between the Carpathian Mountains to the south and the Baltic Sea to the north. Something like an enormous marketplace separating Germany from the Ukraine and Western Russia. In the event of a German attack, which had been unimaginable in the summer of 1929, and seemed unavoidable by the summer of 1939, the only terrain features that might have leant any assistance to the Polish Army were two rivers, the Bug, flowing westward south of East Prussia, and the Vistula, flowing east from southern Poland, then north through central Poland to Danzig and the Baltic Sea. It has been argued that had the Polish Army made a stand behind these two rivers, the German Blitzkrieg may well have failed.

That the war began promptly on September First was not serendipity. The autumn rains begin in mid-October, and as the end of summer approaches, rivers throughout Europe are low in their beds and running slow. It is not until the end of August that a large mechanized army can be sure of crossing Polish rivers rapidly enough to strike quickly, and by the third week of October, Germany’s armoured and motorized infantry units would be immobilized by the mud, and helpless against Poland’s elite cavalry units.[1] There was, therefore, a six week time frame within which an invasion of Poland had its greatest chance of success.

* * *

Invariably, Benito Mussolini and his career are summed up in two pairs of words. Castor oil and train schedules. He established his reputation as a forceful leader by compelling incompetent government bureaucrats (as well as his political opponents) to drink castor oil. And he secured his popularity in Italy when he got railroad passenger service throughout the country consistently running on time. This he accomplished with nothing more than pencils and notebooks. Officials rode the trains, noting how long it took to go from one city to another, how long it took the passengers to get on and off the train, how long it took to load and unload their baggage, how much time was necessary for proper maintenance. New schedules were written by simple clerks armed with nothing more than this pertinent information, and then the trains ran on time. There was no overhaul of the existing rail network, and no new trains were designed or built. There was almost no money spent, and not one engineer, conductor or ticket agent drank castor oil.

Sadly, Mussolini himself learned nothing from this, his most successful undertaking during more than twenty years as Prime Minister, and which was also almost certainly his only effort grounded in reality.

The Italian invasion of Greece began on October 28th, when the mountains and valleys were awash with the autumn rains, and the rivers brimming with rapid flows. Because of the weather, Italy’s air force could not fly tactical combat support, and neither artillery nor trucks could move. At five-thirty in the morning[2], eight divisions of the Italian army went forward in three columns, with Metsovon, Ioannina and Arta as their operational objectives. This would place Epirus (the westernmost province of the Greek mainland) under Italian control.

The war plans, as drawn up by the Italian General Staff, called for reinforcements arriving from Italy, once Epirus was secure, to subsequently drive east to the Aegean Coast, splitting Greece and thus allowing it to be conquered gradually. However, General Prasca, assuming that a spectacular show of force, in conjunction with the virtually unopposed arial bombardment of Greek cities, would demoralize the population and prompt their government to surrender, had no specific plans to carry out the later phases of the invasion.[3]

No other army in Europe had greater bravery or cheaper rifles than the Italians, and no other army in history ever fought so well so often while being led so badly and equipped so poorly.

* * *

Italians fighting in Greece received their first Operational Directive two weeks after the invasion began. It had been written by General Soddu, who had been put in charge of the Greek campaign when General Prasca was relieved of command.

Greek Soldier WW2

The Greek plan of defense was as pragmatic as it was brilliant, and as effective as it was simple. They launched a large number of small counterattacks as the Italians advanced through narrow valleys between steep mountains. A handful of Greeks, with a few well-concealed artillery pieces and a limited number of shells, would inflict heavy casualties on the lumbering mass of surprised Italians. Greek infantry would descend upon them, inflicting more casualties and inciting panic. The Greeks then commandeered such materiel as they could carry and destroyed much of what they could not carry. Those Italians who counter-attacked in the treacherous fog and hazardous terrain took heavy losses.[4] In terms of equipment and resources, in numbers devoid of emotion, the Greek tactics were effective enough, but the impact on Italian morale dwarfed the more concrete effects.

Centauro Division Insignia

On the morning of November 5th, the Italian Centauro Armoured Division spearheaded what would prove to be Italy’s final attack to take place on Greek soil[5]. The tanks leading the operation fell victim to concealed tank traps. Tanks attempting to maneuver around these obstacles discovered minefields, where many of them were destroyed. Artillery fire forced the remaining tanks to attempt a withdrawal through marshes, where most of them sank. The majority of armour crewman who had survived to that point were killed by machine gun and rifle fire. Cavalry units attempting to cover the retreat suffered equally horrendous losses, and that night, Greek infantry taking up the positions abandoned by the shattered Italians were unnerved by the sight of men, interspersed among dead horses and abandoned equipment along the roadsides, who appeared to be sleeping. Anticipating minimal resistance from the Greeks, Italian High Command had not made any arrangements for evacuation of the wounded. However severe their injuries, these soldiers had resigned themselves to their duty, composed themselves, then accepted death, alone and far from home, for the glory of Rome.[6]

On November 22nd, in what could be considered the first victorious Allied attack to take place on the European mainland during the Second World War, the Greeks captured Koritsa, which is now generally known as Korce.[7]

By December Fourth, the Greeks had captured Pogradec, in Albania, and the obvious finally became apparent even to General Soddu, who issued a directive instructing his men to withdraw meter by meter, even though the only Italian units that had not already withdrawn from Greece were those finally arriving from Italy, or those that had been routed too suddenly to retreat.

Not having expected so great a degree of success, the Greeks were not prepared to press it further. They were also reaching the limits of their own supply lines, which had been tenuous from the start. Without trucks or paved roads to drive them on, and hampered by a shortage of mules, whenever the Greeks were unable to capture what they needed from the Italians, they often depended upon a network of women and children.

* * *

One weeps when one imagines an army supplied by children, and one’s sobs become wrenching when one considers to what end these Greek children were supporting their brothers, uncles and fathers. It is always appropriate to give the fullest measure of devotion to protect one’s home, family, and community. However horrible the circumstances, it is always pleasant and proper to die in defense of one’s country, even if it is a de jure crime to speak another language in that country, or a de facto crime to practice another religion. It is holy to stand in the gap and fight for the freedom of another country, another nation, another people. But had the Greeks driven the Italians from Albania, it is inconceivable that Ioannis Metaxas would have done anything more than replace the Italian street signs with Greek ones.

[1] Although Poland’s cavalry did not perform as well against the Germans as it had against the Soviets twenty years earlier, Polish cavalry consistently avoided the encirclement which was an essential facet of the German scheme of warfare.

[2] Emanuele Grazzi, Italy’s ambassador to Greece, had been instructed to inform Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas at 3:00 AM that unless his government immediately acceded to Italy’s demands–which, in effect, amounted to an annexation of Greece–a state of war would exist between the two nations as of 6:00 AM. Metaxas personally received this message from Grazzi at 4:00 AM.

[3] Reynolds Packard, UPI bureau chief in Rome at the time, later contended that the Italian Foriegn Mininster, Count Ciano, had paid bribes to a number of Greek officials in a failed attempt to secure the prompt surrender of Greece. While Packard’s contention is plausible in itself and fully consistent with events, there is neither concrete nor definitive evidence which validates it.

[4] Four years later, many of these same Italians, fighting as partisans against the German forces occupying Italy, would use the same technique.

[5] Italy’s advances into western Greece in 1941 were merely seizures of positions abandoned by the Greeks in response to German successes in Northern and Central Greece.

[6] After the war, General Charalambos Katsimitros, commander of the Greek Eighth Infantry Division, which was responsible for the majority of Italian casualties during the first few weeks of fighting, insisted that cowardice was virtually non-existent among the enlisted men of the Italian Army.

[7] In spite of the city’s population being more than ninety percent ethnic Albanian, the Greeks believed that they were liberating a Greek city. Most historians, wishing to avoid an obvious tinderbox, downplay the significance of this particular battle.

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.

Mussolini Excerpt Part 4

General Eisenhower

Today continues our publication of  Stacy Danielle Stephens’ Mussolini excerpt from her huge, amazing Historical work, which began a couple of weeks ago.

On the 18th , the Combined Chiefs of Staff instructed General Eisenhower to send two of his staff officers to meet with Italian General Castellano in Lisbon. Eisenhower sent his Chief of Staff, American Major General Walter Bedell Smith, and his Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, British Brigadier Kenneth Strong, who went armed, if not to the teeth, then at least to the armpits, with a pair of pistols in shoulder holsters, and a second pair on his hips. In Lisbon, George Kennan, an administrative counselor at the US Embassy, drove the two men to their meeting with Castellano on the 19th. The discussion of terms lasted until dawn, when it was finally agreed that if the Italian Government accepted the terms, Castellano would meet with the Allies again, in Sicily, on August 31st.

In his report to Eisenhower, Smith categorized Castellano in demeaning racist terms, and noted, correctly, that the Italians anticipated German reprisals, and were paramountly concerned about the extent and brutality of such reprisals[1].

* * *

On August 21st, 1943, The London Daily Telegraph reported that an Italian official by the name of De Angelis was in Lisbon negotiating terms of the Italian armistice. That same day, Castellano sent messages to Rome from the Italian Legation in Lisbon. Since he was posing as a member of an economic mission to Chile, his coded messages detailed the difficulties he’d had exchanging currency. No one at the Foreign Office was aware of who he actually was, or what his messages actually meant, and so they were taken at face value and filed away. SIM received copies of these messages, but on August 18th, General Amé had been placed in command of an Infantry division garrisoning Lubiana, Slovenia. Since there was no one in SIM who knew the significance of Castellano’s messages, they were not forwarded to Commando Supremo, so it was not until the 27th, when Castellano himself arrived in Rome, that anyone in Italy knew he had met with Smith and Strong. For the next three days, Castellano, Badoglio and Ambrosio would bicker amongst themselves, struggling to formulate a counteroffer Castellano could take back to the Allies on August 31st.

* * *

It wasn’t yet nine o’clock on the morning of August 31st, 1943, when General Castellano’s Savoia Marchetti landed at Termini Imerese airport, twenty-four miles west southwest of Palermo. Brigadier Strong, in an American plane, was waiting for The General and his interpreter. These three men flew to an airfield near Syracuse, at the other end of Sicily. From there, they were taken by car to meet with General Smith at 15th Army Group Headquarters.

“If the Italian Government could act freely,” Castellano’s interpreter relayed for him, “we would accept your armistice terms, and announce them at once, just as you wish. But since we met in Lisbon, the Germans have reinforced their deployments in Italy. We are virtually an occupied country.”

Neither Smith nor Strong mentioned that it was the Italian Government’s failure to close the Brenner Pass which had enabled the Germans to do that. While this fact may have slipped Castellano’s mind, he certainly had nothing to gain by mentioning it himself. Instead, he mentioned the fifteen allied divisions Badoglio wanted to arrive in Italy. When this force had landed, the armistice could be announced without fear of German reprisal.

“If we could land a force that size,” Smith roared, his patience taxed beyond civility, “we wouldn’t have offered an armistice.” He realized even as the words sputtered from his lips that he’d spoken incautiously. He could also see that Castellano had some grasp of English. So he turned to Strong and began speaking rapidly, using random numbers interspersed with the words infantry, armour, and airborne. Strong caught on at once, and added to the deceptive smoke screen. It would be unwise to let the Italians know that there would be only seven divisions invading at three points[2].

Smith cleared his throat and the two stopped talking. Castellano resumed.

“You wouldn’t have to land the full force at one location,” the interpreter explained for him. Castellano had misunderstood Smith’s outburst. “A small landing first. We could pretend to oppose briefly. Then the real landing.”

“Our landings will succeed with or without Italian co-operation,” Smith said. “Our objective is Northern Italy, and we intend our initial landing to be as far north as we can make it, within the constraints of our air cover.”

Castellano heard what he wanted to hear, which is what Smith had hoped for. Short of actually saying “Salerno”, Smith could not have spelled out the invasion site any more clearly than he had. Castellano had never noticed that bombing raids against Italian cities had no fighter escort. He had no idea what was meant by the term air cover, and no inkling that British and American interceptor aircraft based in Sicily could not possibly patrol a beachhead so far away as Anzio or Fiumicino.

“Our Armoured Motorized Corps,” his interpreter conveyed his imploring frenzied staccato, “cannot hold Rome without immediate assistance.”

“We cannot bargain with you,” Smith replied. He waited to see that Castellano had heard and understood this. “Does Italy accept the terms of the armistice?”

Se Roma è perduto,” Castellano whined, “non sarà facile ripresa!

Smith understood that well enough, and asked what they would need to hold Rome against the Germans. As if he intended to provide it.

“Gasoline, rations, anti-tank guns,” was the response, “and reinforcements. An Armoured Division and an Airborne Division.”

“Why don’t we stop for lunch while I consider this?”

At five o’clock that evening, Castellano left, returning to Rome with the mistaken understanding that if the Italians signed the armistice, announced it before the Allied landing, and seized the airfields in and around Rome, an Airborne Division would land in Rome to help the Italians hold it until the other fourteen divisions landing near Nettuno arrived. Smith, of course, had promised him nothing, and plenty of it.

* * *

On the evening of September 1st, 1943, the Italians transmitted a prearranged radio message indicating that the King and Marshal Badoglio accepted the terms of the armistice. Had they known that plans to supply and reinforce the Italian Army in Rome were solely Castellano’s, they may have felt differently[3]. On September 2nd, Castellano and his interpreter were again speaking with Smith and Strong, who had been joined by two political advisors, Robert Murphy , and British Minister Resident in the Mediterranean Harold Macmillan .

“My government accepts the terms,” they were told, “but requests that it not be announced until September fifteenth.”

“Are you prepared to sign the armistice?” Smith asked.

“He reminds you,” the interpreter explained, “that he has not been given such authority. Our government has already expressed its acceptance of the terms.”

“I need a signature!” Smith shouted, like an inquisitor demanding a formal confession. “Now!”

Castellano refused, his interpreter repeating his previous statement. A radio message was sent to Rome, and Castellano and the interpreter were sent to their tent, where they were kept under guard for the next few hours.

General Alexander and his staff got into full dress uniform before coming to Castellano’s tent. The Italian, overawed by Alexender’s rank and glaring prestige, sprang to his feet and saluted.

Not returning the salute, Alexander said that he had come to accept the Italian surrender. Macmillan approached him, saying that Castellano did not have the authority to sign the agreement. Glaring at Castellano, Alexander said that there must be some mistake. “I’ve seen the telegram. From Marshall Badoglio. Authorizing–Arrest this man! He must be a spy!”

Castellano trembled, as did his interpreter, prattling franticly, quickly explaining this alarming development. Alexander slapped his gleaming boots with his riding crop, explaining that without an armistice agreement, the Allied Air Force would be compelled to flatten Rome at once. The increasingly terrified interpreter related this to Castellano, who shuddered in turn.

“We could do a damn sight more damage to Italy than the Germans would,” Alexander went on. “Without this guarantee of your government’s co-operation, we’ll have to settle for anarchy. But it’s all one to us. The only way out of this, as I see it, would be a telegram to Marshal Badoglio, confirming your authority to sign the armistice.”

Without waiting, Alexander and his staff left, followed by Smith, Strong, Murphy and Macmillan. The guards, however, remained.

* * *

Italina WW2 Tank

On September 3rd, a series of radio messages to and from Rome concluded with the British Ambassador to the Vatican confirming receipt of a signed note from Marshal Pietro Badoglio, authorizing Castellano to sign the armistice. Even as the British Ambassador was transmitting this message, at four in the afternoon, Badoglio was meeting with the German Ambassador, Rudolf Rahn.

“You’ve begun moving two divisions to Rome?” Rahn asked, his tone being the real inquiry, tacitly expressing the Germans’ continued concern about persistent rumours of a pending armistice.

“The Lupi and the Re, yes,” Badoglio answered him. “It was your General Keitel who requested we move our forces south, as soon as they’d absorbed fresh recruits and received new equipment. When these foot soldiers have taken positions around Rome, our mechanized forces can join Kesselring’s divisions, that we may continue fighting alongside you in our common cause.” Badoglio paused. “Your mistrust is incomprehensible. I’m one of the senior military men in Europe. I have given my word, and intend to keep it.” What Badoglio did not specify was that it was not Rahn, but Eisenhower, to whom he had just minutes earlier given his word.

Rahn met with the King early that evening. As had Badoglio, his Majesty insisted that Italy would continue fighting at the side of Germany.

Still later that same day, as the sun was setting, Castellano signed the armistice, and was immediately given the full text of the previously unspecified terms he had just agreed to accept. He gasped, then decided it would be best to say nothing about them, as it was now far too late for anything he might say to matter.

The next morning, Saturday, September 4th, Ambassador Rahn met with Italian Chief of Staff, General Ambrosio, who assured him, as had King Victor Emmanuelle and Field Marshal Badoglio, that Italy was committed to continue fighting at Germany’s side. Taken individually, these assurances would be meaningless enough, but the vigor and consistency with which they were coming, in a steady campaign, similar to an advertising slogan, made it clear enough that the Italians were about to do what they tirelessly insisted they were not about to do. Further, the cloying nonchalance of their coy, studied recitations made it painfully, pathetically obvious that they believed they could simply turn away when the moment came, the way an honour guard on a parade ground might carry out a left flank march.

“Spaghetti-eating mongrels,” Rahn muttered to himself as he stood at the window, watching Ambrosio step away briskly toward Commando Supremo. He had something to tell someone, and while Rahn could only guess whom, he need not guess what.

Ambrosio met with General Mario Roatta, commander of the Italian Army, and told him that an armistice had been signed, and would be announced on or after September 12th, when the Allies would make an amphibious assault near Rome, with the 82nd Airborne landing just outside of Rome, to assist the Italian defenses there while another fifteen Allied Divisions came ashore and drove the Germans north in short order[4].

* * *

In the early hours of September 8th, 1943, while the men of the US 82nd Airborne Division were getting themselves ready for a possible landing near Rome, tentatively scheduled to take place later that day, two of their officers, General Maxwell Taylor and Colonel William Gardiner, were meeting with Marshal Badoglio.

“The number of Germans now surrounding the city is too great for your parachutists to be an adequate deterrent,” he told them. “You will have to postpone all operations indefinitely.”

Of course, nothing was postponed. However, someone at AFHQ, presumably on Eisenhower’s orders, cancelled the secret notification that the invasion was underway. It was clear from their recalcitrance that the Italians would provide no assistance to the allied landings, and it still seemed possible they might attempt a double-cross.

* * *

In 1952, Congressman Richard Nixon would remind Eisenhower that “there comes a time when you piss or get off the pot!” When that time came to Marshal Pietro Badoglio, he tragically did neither. How does one make sense of his equivocation, his apparent unwillingness to stand and deliver when Italy was hanging in the balance?

Badaoglio’s duplicitous inertia can be understood easily enough if one supposes that he hoped to emulate Admiral Darlan, the de facto weathervane of Vichy North Africa, turning adroitly and perfunctorily with the winds of change. Yet if this was the hand Badoglio hoped to play, he profoundly misread the cards he’d been dealt. Darlan’s collaboration with Germany sprang from defeat, rather than a willing alliance, and the Allies’ complicity with him was both an embarrassment and an encumbrance to Eisenhower, Roosevelt and Churchill, who had no wish to be saddled with anything of the sort again.

* * *

At a few minutes after Noon, on September 8th, 1943, four groups of B-17s began dropping bombs on German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s headquarters at Frascati. Kesselring assumed that an amphibious landing near Rome would occur within hours, and feared that the US 82nd Airborne would seize Rome itself[5]. Accordingly, when he had emerged from the rubble, unharmed, he gave orders that units near Rome form a defensive screen, which might give the five divisions in Southern Italy time to move North, where they could join with the eight divisions under Rommel’s command, and forestall total disaster.

* * *

The King had called yet another conference to discuss the armistice, but General Roatta had already scheduled a meeting with General Siegfried Westphal, Kesselring’s Chief of Staff, concerning preparations for the pending Allied invasion, and it would hardly do to give the Germans any reason to suppose Italy had already made plans of her own in that matter. Westphal arrived at Monte Redondo just before six-thirty.

“Smiling Al wants me to move the Third,” he announced at once.

“That’s the Panzergrenadier Division?” Roatta asked. Westhphal nodded. “Can it wait until morning?” If the Germans knew what was happening in Rome, they wouldn’t wait. They’d be moving at once, and only asking leave to achieve surprise. The two generals shared in a momentously pregnant hesitation, each waiting to pick up what the other might let fall, but doubtful of his own sketchy information, and less certain of what his counterpart knew, or how much anyone suspected.

“No,” Westphal finally edged back, “Naval intelligence says the allies are steaming toward Salerno.”

“You’d be moving them south?” Roatta asked. “Away from Rome?” He hoped he sounded aghast, rather then relieved.

Knuckles rapped at the door, which opened at once. A junior officer, cold sweat beaded and dripping from his forehead, announced that there was an urgent telephone call for General Westphal.

“Was it private?” Roatta asked, “or can he take it here?”

“Put it through to this phone,” Westphal said, without hesitation. Italian intelligence would be listening anyway.

“Hallo?” he said as soon as he had the receiver to his ear. “I see,” he said before ringing off a moment later.

* * *

“This is Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.” He spoke from Algiers, via United Nations Radio. “Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces. The Italian Government has surrendered its armed forces unconditionally. As Allied Commander in Chief, I have granted a military armistice, the terms of which have been approved by the Governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Thus I am acting in the interest of the United Nations. The Italian Government has bound itself to abide by these terms without reservation. The armistice was signed by my representative and the representative of Marshal Badoglio and it becomes effective this instant. Hostilities between the armed forces of the United Nations and those of Italy terminate at once. All Italians who now act to help eject the German aggressor from Italian soil will have the assistance and the support of the United Nations.”

It was 6:30 in the evening on September 8th, 1943.

* * *

“General Eisenhower has just announced an armistice,” Westphal said curtly, obviously awaiting an explanation. Roatta knew it had better be a damned good one. He shouted for General Zanussi, who came in immediately.

“Have you heard anything about an armistice?” Roatta asked him.

“Not a word, General[6].”

“Allied propaganda,” Roatta said. He shrugged. “Well, if you must move your men at night,” he went on casually, “let’s say you keep them about twenty miles from Rome itself. Everyone is nervous lately. Our navy has said that same thing about Salerno. If it’s true, Ariete and Piave will be alongside your units in a day. Two at the most.”

Seated as he was in an Italian Headquarters, in the midst of armed Italians, Westphal thought it prudent not to belabour the question. When the German had left the building, Zanussi entered Roatta’s office again.

“Well?”

“We are fucked,” Roatta explained quietly. The two of them began collecting the most incriminating or sensitive documents in the office, limiting themselves to what they could carry discreetly; nothing could be burned, as the smoke of a paper fire would be the surest possible indicator that the Pact of Steel had become a tissue of lies.

* * *

Italian Foreign Minister Raffaele Guariglia heard Eisenhower’s broadcast, and immediately went into Badoglio’s office to inform him of this sudden turn of events.

“We’re fucked!” Badoglio replied. Without fifteen American, British, and Canadian Divisions shielding him from the wrath and fury of Hilter’s army[7], Badoglio was reluctant to announce that he’d sought and agreed to an armistice, and tempted to officially deny it. However, Victor Emmanuelle was adamant that Italy’s word, once given, must be kept. Having delayed more than an hour, Badoglio broadcast a statement via Radio Rome.

“The Italian Government, recognizing the impossibility of continuing the unequal struggle against the overwhelming power of the enemy, with the object of avoiding further and more grievous harm to the nation, has requested an armistice from General Eisenhower, Commander in Chief of the Anglo-American Allied forces. This request has been granted. The Italian forces will therefore cease all acts of hostility against the Anglo-American forces wherever they may be met. They will, however, oppose attack from any other quarter.”

* * *

A few minutes later, General Jodl sent out the single-word signal, “Achse,” notifying German commanders throughout the Mediterranean theatre that it was time to disarm or destroy any and all Italian units which would not surrender. Plans to accomplish this promptly had been made well in advance. In just a few more minutes, Field Marshall Kesselring sent the signal, “Bring in the harvest,” notifying units under his command that this plan was be carried out at once.

* * *

Badoglio seemed still to hope that the Germans would politely tip their hats and march away; however, as a precaution, he and the King fled to Pescara, 120 miles East-Northeast of Rome on the Adriatic coast, taking the government with them. Anyone in authority who could not find space in the five-truck convoy simply left Rome. A few of the departing officials advised their staffs to leave as well, but none of them gave any instructions, nor made any arrangements for the transfer of civil authority to a provisional administration. No one knew whether it would be the Americans or the Germans seizing the city, and no one had any idea what to do in either event, but had no doubt that caught between the two rivals in this unfortunate turn of events, Italians would be considered, at best, opportunists without loyalty. Whether one was shot by a Colt or a Luger hardly mattered.

* * *

If anyone in Rome were more frenzied by Badoglio’s confirmation of the armistice than the Italian government, it was the German embassy staff. Expecting the sky above to fill with American silk at any moment, every one of them was seeking, at the very least, documentation allowing them to leave the city safely, and the higher ranking among them hoped for an Italian armoured column to escort them to an airport, from where they could leave immediately.

* * *

By the morning of September 9th, Kesselring realized that there would be no landing near Rome, or even north of Naples, and that the Italians in Rome would have no Allied support. The landing at Salerno could be contained by the five divisions in the south. So he ordered the 2nd Parachute and 3rd Panzergrenadier Divisions to regroup at once, and to advance on Rome as soon as they could.

[1] Italian concern was neither misplaced nor exaggerated. Within two weeks, more than 600,000 Italians would be taken prisoner by the Germans; the majority of them would be held until the end of the war. Further, throughout Greece, Italian garrison and coastal defense units would be promptly surrounded by Germans and ruthlessly annihilated, often after agreeing to surrender their weapons and withdraw. Such incidents were too numerous be described as isolated.

[2] The US 36th and 45th Infantry and British 46th and 56th Infantry at Salerno; The British 5th Infantry and Canadian 1st infantry crossing at Messina; the British 1st Airborne landing at Taranto.

[3] It is difficult to discern the extent to which Castellano knew he was misleading them. While the 82nd Airborne Division was preparing for a possible landing near Rome, there was no possibility of forces being diverted from the intended landing at Salerno, and little possibility that any supplies or equipment would be diverted. While one hesitates to suggest that Smith may have lied to him, it is safe to assume that Smith felt no need to correct any misinformation Castellano may have stumbled upon.

[4] Ambrosio was repeating Castellano’s grandiose suppositions, which he had no reason, other than rational common sense, to doubt. However, subsequent events make clear that he, as well as almost every other General in the Italian Army, was prepared for less optimistic possibilities.

[5] At that moment, General Taylor reported by radio that the situation in Rome was innocuous. This was a prearranged code indicating that the 82nd was ordered to stand down.

[6] Zanussi, of course, had been among those attempting to negotiate the armistice.

[7] The four strongest, best-equipped Italian divisions, two armoured and two mechanized infantry, were stationed in Rome. The two German divisions “surrounding” the capitol at that moment were, of course, taking up defensive positions in anticipation of an Italian attack supported by American paratroops. Badoglio’s complete lack of confidence in his own armed forces speaks volumes.

[1]

Aug 1943

[2]

American Consul in Paris from 1930 to 1936, and chargé d’affaires to the Vichy government. He was also the one-time State Department specialist on France.

In February 1941, Murphy played an instrumental role in forging the Murphy-Weygand Agreement, which allowed the United States to export to French North Africa in spite of the British blockade and trade restrictions in place upon the Vichy-governed area.

[3]

Prime Minister (1957–1963)

Mussolini Excerpt – Part II

Rome Bombing in WW2

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

 

While Mussolini had no wish to survey the extent of damage the Americans had inflicted on Rome that day, he had no way to avoid it. The dense black smoke rolling into the sky was backlighted by the setting sun as Mussolini’s plane approached, and further illuminated by the raging and still uncontrolled fire spewing that smoke ever upward. Gazing into it, Mussolini was overwhelmed by the vastness, and the certain knowledge that he could neither escape nor avoid what lay ahead. He could only continue forward, plunging into the deepest, least comprehensible darkness he had ever seen, and understanding all too well what Abraham Lincoln had meant when he’d said, eighty years earlier, “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.”

 * * *

 General Ambrosio returned to Rome by rail, and so arrived a few hours later. He met with the King, informing his Majesty that Mussolini had failed entirely. Italy would not be released from the Pact of Steel, and the Germans would tighten their grip on the country while providing no material assistance to the Italians. Victor Emmanuel was at last ready for Mussolini’s resignation. The King’s request would be a formality; Mussolini’s arrest immediately afterward would not be a formality, but a courtesy[1].

 * * *

     On July 20th, 1943, Mussolini met with Renzo Chierici, supreme commander of police forces in Italy, about the very pressing problem of relocating more than five thousand internees and prisoners who could no longer be kept on islands, which were becoming isolated by allied bombing, and were threatened by allied amphibious assaults. Detention facilities on the mainland were already operating at capacity, and resources to build new prisons were simply not available. Chierici left the meeting with bromides and sympathy, but no clear instructions. Mussolini was somewhat distracted, and spent most of that afternoon drafting a letter he would never send, again imploring Hitler to release Italy from its treaty obligations.

* * *

     On July 22nd, 1943, Mussolini again met with the King, assuring him that he planned to unilaterally withdraw from the Pact of Steel as soon as he could remove Italian army units from Greece and Yugoslavia. He promised this would be done by September 15th. When the King failed to see the importance of this, Mussolini informed his Majesty that Germany would begin deploying a secret weapon against Britain, as if this might be of some help to Italy. The King brought their meeting to an abrupt but cordial conclusion by assuring Mussolini that he would never abandon him, and that their friendship was real.

     Later that same day , Count Dino Grandi met with Mussolini, urging him to resign, as if there were no plan afoot to force his resignation. Whether Grandi’s suggestion was a disingenuous ploy or a sincere desire to spare Italy from any trouble that could be avoided is not clear; neither is it clear whether Mussolini’s insistence that Germany’s secret weapons would soon bring the war to a conclusion Italy could live with was nothing more than his typical bluster, or a genuine profession of faith, or a desperate grasping at the only straw that might still be within reach. 

* * *

Mussolini electin poster

 

     On the morning of July 24th, Fascist Party Secretary Carlo Scorza warned Mussolini of the plot to force his resignation. Mussolini chided Scorza for being so dramatic, reminding him of the King’s personal friendship and continued support of Fascism. That afternoon, Mussolini visited his mistress; in the evening, he went to meet with the Grand Council, accompanied by Renzo Chierici, who still had no idea what to do with the thousands of prisoners and internees being displaced by events.

     “I’ll have no difficulty getting these dicks in line,” Mussolini said. He was swaggering, verbally and physically, like a man who had just gotten laid. Chierici would have discerned this easily, even if he hadn’t known it. “They only exist as shadows in the light of others. Take me away from them, they’ll return to the shadows. They know that, and only want to be swept[2] along.”

     For two hours, he spoke from a copious pile of notes, alternately condemning the Italian Army for its failures and praising the Germans for their assistance. Marshal Emilio DeBono presented a lengthy and equally tedious rebuttal, defending the Army and asking what help the Germans would be to Italy now.

     Shortly before nine o’clock, Dino Grandi introduced a motion to return command of the armed forces to the King[3]. He spoke for an hour, concluding with a request that Mussolini “return to being the Mussolini we knew!” Debate began, with a single recess, during which Mussolini went into his personal office to drink warm milk while Grandi rallied support for his motion. A vote was called at 3 AM. It was now July 25th. The vote was nineteen in favour of the motion, seven opposed. Giacomo Suardo, President of the Senate, had abstained.

     As he left the council chamber, Mussolini boasted that he and the King would have a good laugh about this motion. He was obviously sincere when he said this; General Enzo Galbiati, commander of the Fascist Militia, made preparations to arrest Grandi and the eighteen others who had voted with him, but Mussolini refused to give even a verbal order for their arrest.

* * *

March on the Royal Palace in Rome

     Throughout his tenure as Prime Minister, Mussolini had met with King Victor Emmanuel every Monday and Thursday, at ten o’clock in the morning. But late that morning, July 25th, Mussolini asked to see the King that afternoon, rather than the next morning at the regular time, and at the Royal residence, rather than the King’s office. His Majesty had no objection to this; he informed the conspirators that their plans to arrest Mussolini would have to be adapted to the new place and time.

     Mussolini then met again with Enzo Galbiati, who still wished to arrest the nineteen men who had voted against Mussolini earlier that morning; Mussolini explained that he could not legally have these men arrested until the King had ordered their dismissal. Galbiati also asked permission to meet with Heinrich Himmmler to make joint plans to resist the coming Allied invasion of Italy.

     “Don’t you worry,” Mussolini assured him, “after I’ve met with the King this afternoon, everything will be settled.”

     Japan’s newly-appointed ambassador to Italy, Hidaka Shinkojuro, came to see Mussolini at noon. He was shocked when Mussolini begged him to inform Prime Minister Tojo that without immediate and substantial assistance from Germany, Italy would be unable to continue the war. Mussolini also requested that he urge the Japanese ambassador in Berlin to support this move. Shinkojuro could only sweat as he muttered, “Si, si, si.”

     After Shinkojuro had left, Mussolini accompanied Galbiati on a survey of the damage inflicted by the recent American bombing raid. When they had stepped out of the car and were alone, Galbiati asked a sensitive question.

     “How does the King feel about you these days?”

     Mussolini’s reply was not immediate, nor even prompt, and as he waited for a spoken answer, Galbiati observed that Mussolini was not smiling. He hadn’t just gotten laid, and might be swept along himself.

     “I’ve been seeing him once or twice a week these twenty years, and haven’t done a thing without his prior consent. I’ve always had his full support, and he will reaffirm his confidence in me this afternoon. Then we will deal with our rebels.” He did not add that he had in his possession some highly personal information pertaining to the sexual practices of the Royal family, with which he could threaten to blackmail his Majesty if the need should arise.

 

[1] Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio would later explain that the arrest and detention were necessary to ensure Mussolini’s personal safety.

[2] In Italian, “to sweep” can be used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Mussolini was expressing contempt for his Fascist peers in the most vulgar terms he could get away with using.

[3] This was the pretext by which the King would request Mussolini’s resignation, on the grounds that he had lost the confidence of the Fascist Party.

 [1]

July 22, 1943