DESIGNATION: Italy’s Far Eastern Army and Navy Forces
OPERATIONAL: From 1901
ITALY’S SURRENDER TO the Allies in September 1943 led to open hostilities between its Far Eastern forces and the Imperial Japanese Army. The Italians had maintained a presence in the Far East from 1901, following the conclusion of the Boxer Rebellion, when— along with many other European nations— it was granted international concessions in China. To secure its trade rights and protect its interests in common with the other imperialist powers, Italy stationed troops close to its cantonments in Beijing, Shanghai and Tientsin and maintained a small naval presence. For the next four decades Italy built up its forces in China.
When Benito Mussolini signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Japan in September 1940, it placed Italy in the position of junior partner in the Axis alliance against Great Britain and its Commonwealth. For the next three years the naval presence in China and the Far East increased. Two Italian gunboats, Lepanto and Carlotto, were moored in Shanghai; an auxiliary cruiser, Calitea II and the colonial sloop Eritrea were in Kobe; and the steamboat Conte Verde also was in Shanghai. In addition, the Germans persuaded the Italians to convert their large submarines into cargo carriers, which allowed the Reich to receive large quantities of rubber, quinine and assorted raw materials from the Japanese. The Italians also let the Germans use their submarines to deliver valuable cargoes of optical instruments, weapons and assorted stores to the Japanese.
The 1943 armistice meant Italy was now fighting alongside the Allies, and the position of its soldiers and sailors in the Far East became precarious at best. Eritrea was at sea when the armistice was announced and immediately steamed through the Indian Ocean to Colombo in Ceylon, avoiding the Japanese air and sea search for Italian vessels. Some Italian naval crews were determined not to allow their ships to be captured by the Japanese. The day after the armistice, Calitea II was scuttled in Kobe Harbor, soon followed by Lepanto, Carlotto and Conte Verde at Shanghai. The crews of those vessels were sent to prisoner of war camps and used as slave labor by theJapanese for the rest of the war, except those who continued to fight for the Axis cause on the side of the new Italian Fascist state.
The Japanese captured three of the remaining Italian submarines— Cappellini, Guiliani and Torelli— even though the crews had stated that they wished to continue to fight for the Axis.The crews were treated with the same brutality the Japanese had shown to Allied prisoners of war, but were eventually reprieved when their former boats were handed over to the German navy. The Germans had established a U-boat base at Penang, Malaya, and the Italian sailors continued to serve the Axis cause until the German surrender in May 1945, operating their former boats alongside German U-boatmen. The submarine Cagni made a dash for South Africa on learning of the armistice and surrendered to the British. Following the surrender of Nazi Germany, some 20 Italian submariners continued working for the Japanese navy. Torelli stayed in Japanese service until August 30, 1945; the Italian anti-aircraft gunners on board shot down a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, ironically the final accredited kill scored by a unit of the Japanese navy during World War II.
For the Italian military forces stationed on land in China the armistice meant certain internment in Japanese prisoner of war camps. A small mixed army and navy force of 100 men, under the command of a Lt. Cmdr. Baldassarre of the Royal Italian Navy, garrisoned the Beijing radio station, within the Italian concession. Although lightly armed with infantry weapons, Baldassarre was determined to resist a Japanese infantry regiment with approximately 1,000 men supported by artillery and 15 light tanks. Outnumbered 10-to-l the Italians fought for more than 24 hours before surrendering. Afterward, the majority of Italians wanted to continue fighting on the Axis side. The 29 who did not were transported to a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Korea.
At Tientsin there was a more formidable force than at Beijing. Because Tientsin was a commercial center for Italian trade with China, many Italian civilians, including women and children, lived there. The routine rape of white women and general maltreatment of noncombatants captured by the Japanese army was well known, and the Italian consul had withdrawn his staff and the Italian nationals into the area of the Italian concession defended by some 600 soldiers and sailors under Carlo dell’Acqua’s command. Considerably better equipped than the Italians at Beijing, this group had four emplaced 75mm guns. In addition, the garrison had a week’s supply of rations and medicine.
The Italians, however, would once again be outnumbered 10-to-l, this time against a Lt. Col. Tanaka, who commanded nearly 6 ,000 Japanese troops, reinforced with light armored vehicles and artillery. Guns had also been deployed on the river to fire into the Italian cantonment, and air support was available from a Japanese army air force bomber squadron.
Tanaka did not attack immediately, but instead called upon dell’Acqua to surrender. The Italian officers in charge of the defense conferred and refused. The Japanese opened a brief artillery barrage to demonstrate what the garrison was up against. The Italians also learned that Tanaka would shortly be reinforced by an entire Japanese division, along with tanks and more artillery. That persuaded many of the officers that resistance was futile. Although a great majority of the regular Italian soldiers and sailors wanted to fight on, in order to save lives dell’Acqua decided to surrender.
The Italian garrison of Tientsin was marched into Japanese captivity, with the exception of 170 men who pledged their allegiance to the new Fascist Italian Social Republic established after Mussolini’s liberation by German paratroopers on September 12, 1943.These men fought alongside the Germans and Japanese for the rest of the war. The remainder of the Tientsin garrison was dispersed to prison camps outside the city or taken to Korea and Japan, where they suffered alongside other Allied POWs until September 1945.
Originally published in the September 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.