Italy in WW2

The Italians, by an Italian


We have a thing for Italy here on Classically Educated.  Whether it’s because that’s where a lot of the “Classic” part of our moniker took place or whether we simply like the idea of Tuscan sun falling on a suitably hilly vineyard, it’s the one modern nation (along with England, of course) that we can’t get enough of.

We’ve discussed Italy’s literature, their participation in WWII and even encouraged people to take the Grand Tour (which, back when it was a thing, was essentially a jaunt around Rome, Venice and Florence).  But the links above are just the tip of the Iceberg.  Search for the keyword Italy on this blog and you’ll be bombarded with entries.

So you can get a pretty good idea of what both I and our contributors think of that boot-shaped appendage to southern Europe, but what do Italians think about themselves?

The Italians - Luigi Barzini

To get an idea of that, I heartily recommend reading Luigi Barzini’s The Italians.  Part history lesson, part politico/philosophical tract and part meditation on the national temperament, it delivers the goods.

Like most peoples, Italians are quite conflicted.  On one hand, the modern people are the inheritors of a glorious past of which they are justifiably proud.  On the other, the really glorious part took place about two thousand years ago, and the more recent past has been more of a mixed bag in which a general lack of distinction has been peppered with certain bright moments, occurrences and individuals.  The years after the Florentine renaissance ended, in particular, were grim ones.

Barzini, despite his often caustic look at his countrymen, also harbored a geniune affection for their foibles.  Reading between the lines, he seems to be telling his readers that the idiosyncrasies are what makes Italians Italian, and you can’t have one without the other.  In this, though less overtly humorous (and much more critical), he reminds me of the portrait of the English that Bill Bryson painted for us and which we discussed earlier.

The cover of the edition I read portrays this beautifully.  The man shown is not a Medici (or even a Borgia) but a mercenary who later took over a town and ruled… in a hugely humanist and enlightened way.  The perfect symbol for the people described in the text.

Oh, and you won’t forget that nose very soon…

Verdict on this one is: pick up a copy, you’ll probably enjoy it (and learn new stuff while you’re at it).


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest book is about insane Greeks.  He promises to insane Italians next, if enough people pester him to.

Eventually, the War Ended


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.


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.


“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.

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.