Following the successful implementation of Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, the Allies had finally planted themselves on Italian soil. To most Italians, including those in political power, the war was now surely lost. Sicily was overrun by the Allies, and the eternal city of Rome was being bombed. On July 25, 1943, the Italian Grand Council had finally seen enough. Benito Mussolini lost the vote of confidence from King Emmanuelle III and was ousted from power. Following Mussolini’s arrest by Italian authorities, the new leadership under Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio did their best to convince their German allies that Italy would remain in the fight.
But this was not the case. After Badoglio’s government took control, he dispatched representatives to begin secret negotiations with the Allies at the Vatican and in Portugal, seeking favorable terms in exchange for Italy’s surrender. Not only did the Italians want to negotiate a surrender agreement, they also offered to assist in the war against Germany. But first, Italian authorities wanted Allied assurance that reinforcements would be placed in Rome prior to any declaration of war against their former ally.
Eisenhower was willing to negotiate, but the counteroffers were not what Italy had hoped for. The reinforcements Badoglio wished for in Rome never did arrive. Dismissing Badoglio’s request for more time to prepare, the Allies broadcast the Italian surrender at 6:30 PM on September 8, 1943. Badoglio had no choice but to confirm this surrender by radio broadcast an hour later. The Italian populace was ecstatic. The Germans were enraged.
In what is considered to be one of the biggest blunders in Italian military history, Badoglio ordered all military forces to end any hostilities, leaving them with no clear orders on what to do. The Germans quickly capitalized on this and systematically disarmed all Italian ground forces. Italians who refused to relinquish their weapons, skirmishes would erupt against the former allies.
On the Greek island of Cephalonia, for instance, General Antonio Gandin and his 12,000 man Acqui division resisted German demands to disarm. A fierce battle was waged September 13–22 in which 1,300 Italian soldiers were killed. Requests by the Acqui Division for Italian aerial support against German artillery and aerial bombardment were left unanswered. Although Italian pilots on the home front were itching to strike the Germans in Cephalonia, military leaders ordered them to stand down. Eventually, the Acqui Division ran out of ammunition and surrendered. Thousands of Italian prisoners of war were rounded up and shot, arguably one the biggest war crimes committed by the German Army in World War Two.
It would not take long for the co-belligerent forces of Italy to reorganize and contribute to the war effort against Germany. On October 13, 1943, Italy declared war on its former partner. For the remainder of the war, Italian forces would assist the Allies in all major engagements such as Monte Lungo, Monte Cassino and the liberation of Rome. By May of 1944, the Regio Esercito, consisting of 100,000 troops, was reequipped and retrained. Operations such as Operation Herring in April 1945, in which Italian paratroopers were dropped behind German lines south of the Po River, showed the value of these Italian forces in the war against Germany.
Not all Italians were ready to abandon the fascist cause, however. After the daring rescue of Mussolini from imprisonment on September 12, 1943, by Otto Skorzeny and his German commandos, the small puppet fascist state of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) was formed in what was once northern Italy to carry on the war by Germany’s side.
Italians were now pitted against each other, sometimes forcing military officials to make extremely difficult choices. The air force of southern Italy would at times refuse to intercept RSI aircraft during Allied bombing runs. The reason was quite simple: the RSI pilots were attempting to prevent the bombing of Italian cities. Although Italy was by this time a fractured state, the free southern forces still wished to see these “Italian” cities avoid destruction.
By the end of 1943, the RSI had approximately 200,000 individuals in its armed forces. By 1944, it was able to establish four divisions, following their training in Germany.
Most of the RSI ground forces were utilized against partisan units. As the partisans continued to grow in numbers, the RSI forces found it increasingly more difficult to stop the insurgency. During combat with Allied forces, the RSI showed mixed results. There were many instances of desertion as the war began to come to a close and morale began to plummet. However, there were occasions of stiff resistance, such as the successful counterattack against Brazilian forces on late October 1944 and Operation Wintergewitter in December, 1944.
As the war progressed into 1945, all hope was lost for the fascist forces. Soviet and Western forces were now in Germany, and the Allies continued to creep up the Italian peninsula. Spare parts for Axis aircraft and weapons became scarce, and the will to fight was all but gone. On May 2, 1945, German troops surrendered in Italy and the RSI ceased to exist.
When all was said and done, almost 350,000 Italians perished in this war.
About the Author:
Jim Heddlesten, frustrated by his inability to find unbiased, factual information on the Web about Italy’s role in World War II, established the Comando Supremo Website to help others searching for similar information.