Chapter 2: The Axis on the Defensive
The Italo-German Alliance
Germany and Italy, bound together in the Pact of Steel of May 1939, had nothing even remotely resembling the Combined Chiefs of Staff. They determined their strategy according to a method that was considerably different from and much less cohesive than the modus operandi of the English-speaking Allies. The Italo-German alliance, termed by the treaty a pact between the National Socialist and the Fascist regimes, was essentially a personal union of the two dictators, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, each the Head of Government of his state and each the supreme commander of his armed forces. Whatever agreements were reached, whatever tensions developed were ultimately determined by the personal relations between the two individuals.
Hitler directed and controlled all the executive departments in Germany. After he assumed command of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) in 1938, the Armed Forces Supreme Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW) emerged as the over-all organ of command. Under OKW each military service had its own commander and staff—Grossadmiral Karl Doenitz heading the Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine (OKM) after early 1943, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring controlling the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL), and Hitler himself at the head of the Army, the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH).1
With Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel as chief of OKW and Generaloberst Alfred Jodl head of the operations branch (Wehrmachtführungsstab or WFSt), Hitler directed German strategy during the first two years of the war through the OKW. After Hitler relieved Feldmarschall Walter von Brauchitsch in 1941 and assumed personal command of the Army, he used the OKH to direct the forces fighting in Russia. He then used the OKW to direct the forces elsewhere—in Finland, Norway, France, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean.
The geographical bifurcation in the chain of command, illogical while the Axis was on the offensive, became an
acute problem when the Axis had to assume the defensive after November 1942. There was no over-all organ of command, no chief of staff who could plan total German strategy, who could view the requirements of each service and each theater in terms of available resources. Conflicting demands for resources could be resolved ultimately only by Hitler himself. Becoming more and more jealous and suspicious of the generals, he made it increasingly difficult for men of independent minds to serve him.2
Mussolini’s powers in Italy were almost as great. The King, Victor Emmanuel III, was the head of the state, to whom the officers and men of the Royal Army, Navy, and Air Force were bound by oath. Mussolini, the Duce of the Fascist party, whose members, both civilians and uniformed militia, had sworn personal allegiance to him, was the Head of the Government (Capo del Governo). With all the powers of that office as enumerated by the Fascist constitutional laws of 1925–26, he had complete control of the executive branch of the government.
After 1939, Mussolini served simultaneously
as Minister of War, of the Navy, and of the Air Force. The undersecretaries of the Navy and Air Force were at the same time chiefs of staff of their respective armed forces, while the War Ministry had both an undersecretary and a chief of the Army General Staff. Mussolini maintained close control over the Italian armed forces through their respective ministries.
Because the Italian constitution vested the power of command over the Army and Navy (and by implication over the Air Force) in the King alone, Mussolini in 1938 secured for himself the military rank of Marshal of the Empire, the same title as that held by the King. With Italy’s entrance into the war in June 1940, Mussolini gained the command prerogative by having the King delegate to him the command of all forces operating on all fronts.3
Like Hitler, Mussolini had served in a humble position in World War I, was fascinated by military glory and display, had a keen, retentive mind, and had read much military literature. But while Hitler after 1942 tended increasingly to intrude on the lower levels of command, dictating the movements of even a single division, and eventually depriving his field commanders of the freedom to maneuver, Mussolini was not interested in details. Exercising his command at the strategic level only, Mussolini was amenable to argument and he operated with the advice of and through his professional officer corps.4
Before 1941 the Armed Forces General Staff (Stato Maggiore Generale), known as the Comando Supremo, had only seven members, exercised no command, had no direct dealings with other staffs, and served primarily as an advisory body for Mussolini as Head of Government. Each military service had its own staff, the Stato Maggiore Regio Esercito or Superesercito for the Army; the Stato Maggiore Regia Marina or Supermarina for the Navy; and the Stato Maggiore Regia Aeronautica or Superaereo for the Air Force.5 After 1941, when Mussolini ousted Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio as chief of Comando Supremo and appointed Generale d’Armata Ugo Cavallero his successor, the Comando Supremo went through a radical reorganization. The staff developed intelligence and operation sections, the service chiefs of staff became directly subordinate to the chief of Comando Supremo, and that body grew into a huge organization that acted not only as Mussolini’s command organ but also as the group that cooperated with the OKW. Through its operations section, the Comando Supremo controlled the operational theaters: North Africa, Russia, Greece, and the Balkans; Superesercito, the Army General
Staff, retained the direction of the ground troops in Italy and in occupied France and of the antiaircraft defenses within Italy.6
On matters of interest to both powers, Italy and Germany depended on the older and more traditional methods of cooperation between states allied in war: ministerial correspondence, military attaché reports, periodic conferences between Hitler and Mussolini (who were accompanied by members of the OKW and of the Comando Supremo), personal letters (usually drafted in the appropriate offices), and liaison officers. But the important matters were decided by the dictators.
Though Hitler had great admiration and friendship for Mussolini, it is more than doubtful that Mussolini reciprocated this feeling. As the war progressed and German predominance grew, Mussolini found Hitler’s ascendancy galling.7
Nazi and Fascist party leaders for the most part had considerable liking for each other, and the Nazi Weltanschauung tended constantly to distort favorably the picture of Italy’s military capabilities. Professional military elements in both nations, however, remained generally unaffected by the mystical-mythological exuberance of the parties, and the German and Italian Armies each retained its own traditional view of the other. The Germans had a rather low estimate of Italian capabilities. They remembered not only that Italy had abandoned, then turned against the Central Powers in World War I, but also that the essential function of the Italian Army since the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy had been the defense of the Alps against the enemy to the north.8
When Italy entered World War II, Mussolini announced that Italy would
fight a “parallel war” with Germany. Since both powers had the same enemies, each would fight for its own objectives within its own sphere. Mussolini wished no German forces in the Mediterranean, which he regarded as an Italian theater. Though Hitler never appreciated the significance of the Mediterranean, his respect for Italian prestige and his unwillingness to intrude there led in great measure to his neglect of opportunities for striking decisive blows at Britain during the winter of 1940–41.9
After the Germans managed in the summer of 1940 to restrain Mussolini from invading Yugoslavia, the Italian leader attacked Greece, a move that surprised and annoyed the Germans. Before long, Mussolini had to appeal for German assistance, and after receiving frantic calls for help the Germans dispatched units to the Mediterranean.10
The dominant position of Germany and the subordinate place of Italy in the alliance was, therefore, a fact as early as Italy’s first winter in the war. Mussolini and the Comando Supremo were never thereafter able to establish a parity in conference with the Germans.11
The concept of parallel war did not long endure. In his enthusiasm to march with Hitler, Mussolini strewed his forces all over the map. During the summer of 1941, when Hitler attacked Russia, Mussolini sent an expeditionary corps of four divisions to help; a year later, the strength of this force had reached the size of an army totaling 217,000 men: the Eighth Army, containing three corps and eight divisions.12 In Croatia, Slovenia, Dalmatia, Albania, Montenegro, Greece, and the Aegean Islands, there were 579,000 troops. In North Africa, by the end of September 1942, the Italians had 147,000 men. After the Allied invasion of North Africa, when the unoccupied zone of Vichy France ceased to exist, an army of some 200,000 men moved into southern France. By January 1943, Italian ground forces were stationed in Russia, Greece, the Balkans, southern France, North Africa, and the Italian homeland. About 1,200,000 of Italy’s best trained soldiers and best equipped units were on foreign soil, about 800,000 in Italy.13
In the early stage of the war, only a simple expedient was necessary to maintain liaison between the Comando Supremo and the OKW. General der Infanterie Enno von Rintelen, German Military Attaché in Italy since 1936, became the OKW representative to the Comando Supremo. In addition to reporting to OKH and the German Foreign Office as Military Attaché, Rintelen now had direct communication with OKW as well. Having mastered the Italian language, holding a high appreciation of the admirable qualities of the Italian people, and enjoying a sympathetic understanding and friendship with many Fascist leaders, Rintelen nevertheless estimated the capabilities of the Italian armed forces on a basis strictly professional. He felt that Nazi enthusiasm for Mussolini and fascism seriously distorted and magnified the military power of Italy.14
Though Rintelen sufficed during the brief period of Mussolini’s parallel war, something more than a single liaison officer was necessary to link the Germans and Italians when Germany moved into the Mediterranean to rescue Italy in November 1940. As the Germans prepared to invade Greece, to dispatch armored forces (later to be known as Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s German Africa Corps, the Deutsches Afrika Korps) to North Africa, and to shift some 400 to 500 planes of the German X Air Corps (the X Flieger Korps) to fields in southern Italy and Sicily, the problem of commanding the combined forces became acute. Hitler solved the problem in a directive of 5 February 1941 when he specified that the German troops in Libya (and if the occasion arose, in Albania as well) would be under the direct tactical command of the Italian theater commander; the X Air Corps was to
remain subordinate to Göring but was to cooperate closely with the Italian authorities.15 Over those units crossing Italian territory to reach southern Italy, Sicily, and North Africa, over convalescents and men returning from furlough, over service troops and, later, antiaircraft batteries stationed in Italy, Rintelen was to exercise command.
This arrangement lasted until December 1941, when Hitler sent the German Second Air Force (Luftflottenkommando 2) to Italy. He named the air commander, Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring, Commander in Chief South (Oberbefehlshaber Sued).16 The title Commander in Chief South had little real significance at this time, for Kesselring’s command was not much more than an air force headquarters located at Taormina, Sicily, for the units operating from Italian airfields and under Italian operational control.17
A gifted, thoroughly trained, and experienced officer, Kesselring had a strong sense of duty as well as considerable personal charm and tact. He found much to admire in Italy and in the Italian people, and he developed a high regard for Mussolini and a firm bond of friendship with Cavallero, then chief of Comando Supremo.
In October 1942, when OKW began to be apprehensive over the possibility of an Allied move in the Mediterranean, Hitler gave Kesselring command over all the German armed forces in the Mediterranean, with the exception of the German-Italian panzer army in North Africa. General von Rintelen was made subordinate to Kesselring for all his command functions, but as the immediate OKW representative in Italy, Rintelen retained the right of direct communication with that staff. Kesselring thereby became and remained the only German to hold a unified theater command.18 He moved his headquarters to Frascati, near Rome, to facilitate close cooperation with Comando Supremo. The size of his staff increased not only through the addition of a small operations group but also by the attachment of Italian air force and naval liaison officers.19
Hitler extended Kesselring’s command further in January 1943, when he placed him over the two German armies in Tunisia. Kesselring’s staff again increased in size.20
While Kesselring’s increasing authority represented the growing German influence, Mussolini was concluding that an Axis military victory was no longer possible. As early as December 1942, he thought that the Axis ought to make a separate peace with the Soviet Union so that Germany would be free to commit the bulk of its forces against the Anglo-Americans in the Mediterranean. To Göring, who was in Italy at the time, Mussolini said that if the war in the east could not be terminated by agreement with Russia, the Axis forces should withdraw to a shorter line. Because he expected the “Anglo-Saxons” to make their major effort in 1943, Mussolini thought that the Axis should defend Africa, the Balkans, and perhaps even the west with the greatest possible number of divisions. Apparently encouraged by Göring, who suggested that Hitler might approve a new Brest-Litovsk, with compensation to Russia in middle Asia, Mussolini proposed a conference of the dictators.
Because of the critical developments at Stalingrad, Hitler refused to leave his headquarters for a meeting with Mussolini. Because of his ulcers, Mussolini decided against taking the long trip to see Hitler. The Duce therefore entrusted the mission of persuading Hitler to make peace with Stalin to Count Galeazzo Ciano, his son-in-law and Minister of Foreign Affairs.21
At Hitler’s headquarters, Ciano, who was accompanied by Cavallero, found no inclination to discontinue the war against the Soviet Union. During three days of
conferences, 18–20 December, the German Führer as usual doing most of the talking, it became clear that Hitler saw no advantage to be gained by terminating the war in the east. Hitler’s strategic views were defensive in nature, designed to hold the territories overrun by the Axis armies, and Hitler thought that the Axis could do so. He had the wishful notion that the Russians would bleed to death and make it possible for the Germans to push again to the Don River, which he conceived as the ultimate barrier between Europe and the Bolshevist east. He considered it essential to hold not only a bridgehead in North Africa to protect the central Mediterranean and retain Italy’s alliance but also Greece and the Balkans for the bauxite, copper, and oil necessary for the German war machine.22
When he returned to Rome on 22 December and reported to Mussolini the discouraging results of his mission, Ciano was not altogether displeased. He believed that if Italy collapsed through Mussolini’s failure, the Western Powers would be glad to negotiate with him as Mussolini’s successor.23 Count Ciano also found the occasion to disparage Cavallero, who, he said, had been servile to the Germans at Hitler’s headquarters.
Cavallero personified the policy of close integration with Germany, and the Germans regarded him highly. But at the turn of the year Cavallero began to undergo a change of heart. He resented the German accusation that Russian success at Stalingrad was largely the fault of the Italian troops there. He objected to the German proposal that the Germans, in the event of Allied landings, assume command over Italian units in the Balkans. He urged Kesselring to recall Rommel from North Africa because Rommel had embittered the Italian officer corps by his conduct toward the Italians after El ‘Alamein.24
Cavallero’s change of heart came too late. Mussolini suddenly dismissed him on 1 February 1943. The day before, he had summoned Generale d’Armata Vittorio Ambrosio to the Palazzo Venezia in Rome and told him that the cycle of Cavallero was closed, the cycle of Ambrosio opening. When Ambrosio expressed surprise and some disinclination
to inherit Cavallero’s legacy, Mussolini declared, “We will divide the responsibility.” He then asked Ambrosio for his ideas. Unprepared, Ambrosio nevertheless stated three points: lighten the organization of Comando Supremo; bring back to the Italian homeland the greatest possible number of Italian divisions; and stand up to the Germans. To the last point, Mussolini exclaimed, “Benissimo!”25
Ambrosio thoroughly disliked the Germans.26 He had a faithful protégé in Generale di Brigata Giuseppe Castellano, who not only hated the Germans violently but was predisposed to political intrigue. Ambrosio met Ciano through Castellano, and together with Generale di Corpo d’Armata Giacomo Carboni, who was also close to Mussolini, these officers hoped that the dependence of Italy on Germany could be brought to an end.27
The cordial relationship between Comando Supremo and OKW ceased with Ambrosio’s appointment, and this change was part of a general shift by Mussolini toward a greater independence with respect to Germany. The Germans regarded Ambrosio as correct, but it was a cold and formal type of correctness. The wartime spirit of comradeship in arms vanished, and Kesselring and Rintelen found Ambrosio to be a stickler who made difficulties. When it appeared to the Germans in Italy that Ambrosio hampered or frustrated the execution of Mussolini’s declared intentions, they frequently found it necessary to appeal directly over Ambrosio’s head to Mussolini.28
Though Ambrosio made but few changes in Comando Supremo, retaining the basic structure and powers established by Cavallero,29 he made strenuous efforts to carry out the second and third points of his program. In February 1943, when Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s
Foreign Minister, and General der Artillerie Walter Warlimont, Jodl’s deputy at OKW, traveled to Rome to plan the suppression of the resistance forces in Yugoslavia, Warlimont was startled to hear Ambrosio state his intention of withdrawing some Italian forces from Croatia. Throughout several conferences Ambrosio stubbornly refused to participate in measures to disarm the Mihailovitch elements. Considering the Axis forces in the Balkans inadequate to crush all the partisans completely, he preferred to use the Chetniks against the Communists. The discussions reached a degree of argument never before heard, and what seemed like obscure Italian political intentions in the Balkans first excited Hitler’s suspicions that the Italian generals were plotting “treason” against the Axis.30
Italy could ill afford to provoke Germany, for Italy by this time was an economic province of the Reich. With the weakest war potential of all the states classified as great powers, Italy lacked almost all the raw materials required for warfare in the modern industrialized age. Cut off from overseas supplies of coal, scrap iron, cotton, oil, and rubber, Italian heavy industry had too narrow a base to supply the new types of aircraft engines, tanks, and guns necessary to put the Italian armed forces on a par in equipment with the leading armies of the world. The coal and iron for heavy industry and the oil for the ships and planes could come only from Germany or German-controlled areas of Europe. As the Axis shifted to the defensive, Italy faced a contraction of its war production.31
Germany, too, was showing serious economic strains by the spring of 1943. After the manpower losses at Stalingrad, Germany began to draw from marginal groups. Although German production increased greatly, the increase did not equal both losses and new requirements. By March 1943 the rubber supply and the production of motor vehicles had become critical and fuel oil had to be carefully allotted.
Submarine warfare remained the only offensive German activity in the spring of 1943. Elsewhere, the Axis was on the defensive. Fully committed in support of the ground forces in the east and to convoy protection in the Mediterranean, even the once mighty Luftwaffe had ceased to be significant as an offensive weapon. But reflecting more clearly the state of affairs was the fact that the Axis no
longer had the semblance of a clear strategic aim.32
During February and March, 1943, tension grew between the Axis partners as Mussolini pressed for peace with the Soviet Union or withdrawal in the east, Hitler concentrated on destroying Bolshevism, Ambrosio and the OKW wrangled over the Balkans, and the Italian war machine began to sputter for lack of German supplies.33
Though the German Government and high command had never entertained a high esteem for the Italian people as allies, they had placed great faith in Mussolini. After March 1943, German trust even in Mussolini began to waver. When Ribbentrop explained Hitler’s reason why a renewed offensive in the east was necessary, Mussolini promised to give energetic help, both political and military. Yet Mussolini wrote Hitler on 8 March and again on 26 March to urge a separate peace with the Soviet Union.34
Having made up his mind on a given course, Hitler was merely annoyed by advice to the contrary. This was evident early in April when the Duce and the Führer, accompanied by military and diplomatic staffs, met for three days (7–10 April) at the Klessheim Castle near Salzburg, Austria, their first meeting in almost a year. Hitler’s fanatical will to concentrate all available power to destroy the Soviet Union determined all aspects of the conference, and the results of the meeting were a bitter disappointment to the Italians. Mussolini was ill during most of the time and was confined to his suite, and though Hitler visited the Duce twice a day, the Italian’s illness put him at a decided disadvantage. Germany seemed unwilling to send men or materials to support the Italian homeland threatened by direct attack. In the face of the great superiority of material the Allies enjoyed in the Mediterranean, Hitler spoke in a lofty vein: hopes for future success in submarine warfare; an iron will in the face of all obstacles; and a ruthlessness toward Greek and Yugoslav rebel forces. The only concrete offer came from Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler who promised thirty-six heavy German tanks for a special division of Fascist militia to be assigned the task of preserving order in Rome.35
The Klessheim Conference did not bring Italy and Germany closer together; it served only to increase the growing friction. Ambrosio, no longer believing that a separate peace could be made in the east, saw hope for Italy only in the possibility that Mussolini would be able to break the alliance with Germany.
The Disintegration of Fascism
The difficulty of breaking the alliance lay in the fact that the Fascist regime was secure only so long as the prospect of victory existed. And victory without the power of Germany was hard to imagine.
As early as the summer of 1942, Mussolini’s personal popularity had begun to diminish, and the Fascist party structure to crack. Mussolini was ill during much of the winter, and many Italians hoped and prayed that God might solve the country’s problems by removing the Duce. But the Duce remained alive, his capacity for work scarcely impaired in spite of his illness, even though he apparently considered giving up command of the armed forces and restricting his efforts to the political leadership of the state.36
Failing at Klessheim to persuade Hitler to end the war in the east so as to make it possible for the Germans to concentrate their forces in the Mediterranean against the Allies and in support of Italy, Mussolini apparently reached the definite conclusion that the Axis had lost the war. He had felt this several months earlier, and he had already taken steps to tighten the reins of power over his increasingly disenchanted people. Soon after dismissing Cavallero from the Comando Supremo, Mussolini on 5 February discharged almost all the members of his cabinet and appointed new ones. The most important change was in foreign affairs—Ciano became Ambassador to the Holy See, Mussolini, himself, took the Ministry, and Giuseppe Bastianini, a faithful follower of Mussolini, became Under Secretary. Soon after his return from Klessheim to Rome, Mussolini dismissed Carmine Senise, Chief of Police and Prefect of Rome, and replaced him with a reliable Fascist. On 18 April he made Carlo Scorza, an ambitious thug, secretary of the Fascist party, and Scorza sought to rejuvenate the party by a return to the club and castor oil tactics of the early twenties.37
But Mussolini was incapable of checking the decline in Italian morale. Defeatism became widespread. Clandestine political parties became more vigorous. On 12 March, when almost 50,000 working men in northern Italy went on strike ostensibly to demand compensation payments to bombed-out families, leaflets were circulated demanding liberty and peace. Unable to cope with what was the first open labor strike under a totalitarian regime, the Fascist authorities acceded to the demands for compensation, then arrested and executed several of the reputed leaders.38 On 1 May, despite police prohibitions, labor unions marched in May Day demonstrations.
An obvious solution was to make peace with the Allies, but two factors complicated the situation: reluctance to break the alliance with Germany and, later, disinclination to accept unconditional surrender. Though some of Mussolini’s associates urged him to find a way out of
the war, Mussolini was at an impasse. In October 1942, the Honorable Myron C. Taylor, Personal Representative of the President to His Holiness the Pope, informed the Pope that Mr. Roosevelt would not receive any peace overtures made by Mussolini through the Holy See. When Count Dino Grandi, former Italian Ambassador to London, made arrangements in November 1942 to travel to Madrid in order to talk with the British Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, Mussolini at first did nothing to prevent the trip, but finally refused to let Grandi leave the country.39 In the same month, members of the Italian embassy in Berlin drew up a plan not only to dissolve the alliance with Germany but also to secure a united withdrawal from the war by Italy, Hungary, Rumania, and Bulgaria.40 In January 1943, after the Italian minister at Bucharest had several frank discussions with Ion Antonescu, the Rumanian Prime Minister, on how Italy might take the lead in a joint peace maneuver, Ciano laid the proposal before Mussolini who listened but declined to take action.41
By early 1943, three distinct groups of Italians were trying to find a way out of the war: dissident Fascists; military officers; and underground anti-Fascist parties. The first two had the primary aim of finding a solution to end the war, and their object was to do so with Mussolini if possible, without him or even against him if necessary. The anti-Fascists wanted Mussolini’s overthrow and the end of the Fascist system as goals in themselves. With only the most tenuous connections with each other, all looked to the King for initiative.
After Ciano left the cabinet, he became leader of the dissident Fascists. He had frequent contacts with Grandi, Giuseppe Bottai, Roberto Farinacci, and other Fascists who expressed criticism of the Duce’s leadership. Though Ciano himself had negotiated the German alliance, he disliked the Germans and disbelieved in the pact. He assumed it was possible to force Mussolini out of office by means of intrigue and yet maintain the Fascist party intact. Grandi, Luigi Federzoni, and others shared Ciano’s hope of tossing Mussolini overboard without swamping the Fascist boat. They could then seize the rudder and steer the ship into the port of a separate peace with the Allies. These men suddenly discovered that they were monarchists at heart, and as their contacts with the royal palace increased,
they suggested themselves as successors to Mussolini.42
The military party began to take form under Ambrosio, though it remained small. Most officers had neither the time nor the inclination for political activity. Their oath of office was to the King, and their stronger loyalty, in case of conflict between fascism and monarchy, was to him. Seeing no point in war for its own sake, or war by Italy for the sake of Hitler, and believing the war lost as early as February 1943, Ambrosio favored terminating the German alliance. He wanted to cut Italy’s losses and save not only the Army but the monarchy as well. By keeping Mussolini clearly informed of the military situation, he hoped that the Head of the Government would draw the proper inference that a political solution of the war was essential. When he went further and suggested openly the suitability of terminating the German alliance, he only stirred Mussolini to vigorous reaction, Mussolini declaring fervently that he would march to the very end with his German ally.43
Close to Ambrosio were Generals Castellano and Carboni, both of whom recognized far earlier than Ambrosio that any hope of getting Mussolini to break with Hitler was illusory. Castellano, in particular, rapidly added to his contacts, and he was soon on good terms with Bastianini in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with Duke Pietro Acquarone, the King’s personal secretary.44
By March 1943, Castellano was so deep in intrigue that he drew up a detailed plan for a coup d’état. He provided measures to capture Mussolini and those leading Fascists most pro-Duce, and he included steps to be taken against possible Fascist and German reactions. He submitted the plan to Ambrosio who kept it twenty-four hours. But Ambrosio thought the idea premature, and he returned the paper with the suggestion that Castellano limit himself to alerting Army commanders in a general way to the possibility of public disturbances and orienting them on their duties should such situations arise. Not satisfied, Castellano submitted the plan to Ciano, who read it, refused to commit himself, and carefully locked the treasonable paper in his embassy safe at the Holy See.45
In May, Ambrosio had some rather candid discussions with Mussolini. He
pointed out the Duce’s responsibility for the war and the absurdity to which the concept of a lightning war had been reduced. But he received no favorable response. Losing hope that Mussolini would separate Italy from Germany, he began to make certain that the King received all the important papers on the state of the Italian armed forces and on the over-all military situation. Ambrosio was ready to help overthrow Mussolini if the King gave the word, but without that word, he would not act.46
Castellano, meanwhile, had been busy making contacts and lining up men in key positions for his coup d’état. He won over Bastianini, and he secured from Renzo Chierici, head of the police, assurances that there would be no interference from that quarter with a political upheaval. When the Duke of Acquarone in mid-June hinted to several dissident Fascists that the King was thinking of replacing Mussolini as Head of Government, the isolation of Mussolini was virtually complete. By the end of June, both dissident Fascists and military party members were waiting only for a signal from the King to turn against the Duce.47
As for the underground anti-Fascist parties, they gained a new lease on life during the second half of 1942—Liberals, Christian Democrats, Socialists, Labor Democrats, Communists, and the Party of Action, each of which proposed different remedies for Italy’s ills. The most conservative, the Liberals, wished the complete abolition of the Fascist system and the restoration of parliamentary government as it had existed before 1922, while the Party of Action regarded the monarchy and the church as the chief evils of Italy. Ivanoe Bonomi, a former Prime Minister, was influential in drawing the leaders of the underground parties together in a loose coalition. He was concerned in particular with restraining the Party of Action, which he feared might drive the crown to the embrace of the dissident Fascists. In March Bonomi secured agreement on a kind of party truce for the periods of wartime transition and reconstruction. Thus, despite their divergent views on the future needs of Italy, all the underground parties in the spring of 1943 were monarchical in the sense that they, too, looked to the King for action against Mussolini.48
Bonomi himself expected little from the King in the way of vigorous action, and he therefore made no approach to the throne until April, when he learned that the British Minister at the Holy See had indicated the British Government’s preference for a monarchical solution to Italy’s political problem. Since the British Minister, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, had not repulsed the efforts of Ciano and Grandi to see him, Bonomi began to be apprehensive that the Anglo-Americans might be willing to deal not only with the monarchy but even with the dissident Fascists. He therefore made an appeal to the King through an old and retired admiral, Grand Admiral Paolo Thaon di Revel, who had an almost superstitious reverence for the crown. The elderly admiral went to church and prayed before undertaking the audience, but when
he explained the tragic situation of the country to the King, the monarch revealed nothing of his thoughts. The King’s sphinxlike attitude came as quite a shock to Paolo Thaon di Revel’s monarchist principles.49
More satisfactory was Bonomi’s secret meeting on 26 May, two weeks after the end of the Tunisian campaign, with the Duke of Acquarone. The course Bonomi urged was: arrest Mussolini; nominate a ministry headed by a prominent general and staffed by anti-Fascists; and denounce the alliance with Germany. Acquarone did little more than agree to arrange an audience for Bonomi with the King.50
King Victor Emmanuel III held the pivotal position in Italy’s political situation during the spring of 1943. Having virtually withdrawn from public life during the turbulent war years, a cautious, timid, and secretive person, he disliked making decisions. First urged in November 1942 to dismiss Mussolini, he stated that he would act “when and if he thought it was necessary, and in whatever manner he himself deemed best for the country.”51 Yet the King had begun, it appeared, to be skeptical of Axis victory at least as early as 19 November 1942, for on that date he kept Ciano for an hour and twenty minutes at an audience and requested news of the neutral powers—Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey. Apparently concerned over the scarcity of troops in Italy, he asked Ciano to suggest to Mussolini, without revealing that the suggestion came from the King, that some troops be brought home. Though the monarch repeated rather generic statements of faith in the progress of the war, he asked many questions about Washington and London, and he advised the Foreign Minister to cling to any thread leading in those directions, even if the thread was “as thin as a spider’s web.”52
Throughout the early months of 1943 the King remained impassive. He listened discreetly to all suggestions but said nothing. To Badoglio, who gained an audience at the insistence of his friends that he explain the situation and recommend a change in political leadership, the King listened attentively but revealed nothing of his thoughts.
Bonomi had his day before the King on 2 June 1943. He drew a picture of impending disaster and suggested that the crown had the power, by the Italian constitution, to recall Mussolini. Since the alliance with Germany was a pact between National Socialist and Fascist regimes, Bonomi said, Mussolini’s dismissal would give the Italian Government a sound legal basis for denouncing the treaty. The King refused to commit himself.
Six days later, the King remained quiet during an audience with Marcello Soleri, lawyer and politician, and eight days later still, during a meeting with Badoglio, he maintained his silence.53
Although it was not apparent to those who sought comfort in the King, Victor Emmanuel III had in actuality come to
a decision. On 15 May 1943 he presented Mussolini with three memorandums, a clear suggestion for the course the King wished the Duce to follow. Based on the military data provided by Ambrosio, the first paper compared the military forces of the Axis and the satellite powers with those of the Allies and the Soviet Union; the second paper listed the Allied military capabilities and contrasted the scanty possibilities of Italian resistance. The third memorandum outlined a course of action:
One ought now to do everything to hold the country united, and not make rhetorical speeches with a purely Fascist basis. It is necessary to maintain close contact with Hungary, Rumania, and Bulgaria, countries that have little love for the Germans. One ought not to neglect making whatever courtesies are possible toward the governing men of England and of America. It is necessary to consider very seriously the possibility of separating the fate of Italy from that of Germany whose internal collapse can come unexpectedly like the collapse of the German Empire in 1918.54
Disliking the Germans, fearful of their reaction if he removed Mussolini, the King was also scrupulous in his conduct. He wished to terminate the German alliance, but only with German consent. Admiring, even envying Mussolini’s power and cleverness, the Italian monarch saw no one in Italy as well qualified as the Duce to solve the incredibly difficult problem of ending the alliance and withdrawing from the war.55
Perhaps the task was insuperable. Mussolini had lost prestige in the eyes of his allies, his military forces, his government associates, his party members, and his people. The Fascist system was nothing more than a hollow shell. Thoroughly war-weary, the Italian people desired only an end to bombings and hardships and sorrow. The military units had lost confidence in themselves, and their commanders were without hope of victory. Defeatists staffed the foreign service, and their reports from Berlin, Budapest, Bucharest, and the neutral capitals insisted that continuing the war would bring only disaster to Italy. A considerable number of Mussolini’s personal followers, members of the Fascist Grand Council, began to see the beginning of the end.
In this situation, Mussolini could only grope for a way out. The Allies, however, blocked the way toward a separate peace with their publicly proclaimed demand for unconditional surrender.
The Allied Threat
Expecting the Allies to invade the European continent, aware of Russian demands on the Allies for a second front, and anticipating therefore that the Allies would try to time their offensive move to coincide with Russian attacks tying down German forces in the east, Axis intelligence agencies shrewdly guessed that build-up and other invasion preparations would occupy the Allies until the end of June or the beginning of July. But where the blow would strike was, of course, the other side of the coin. The likely targets in the Mediterranean were southern France, Sicily, Sardinia, southern Italy, Rhodes, Greece, and the Balkans; some reports mentioned Spain, Turkey, Sweden, the Netherlands, and northern France; and a rumor persisted that
the Allies would invade the Continent by way of Norway.56
Among the various Axis headquarters, there was no agreement on the most likely target in the Mediterranean. Comando Supremo, in general, inclined toward Sardinia for many reasons—Allied forces could converge there from Gibraltar and North Africa; Sardinia was a necessary preliminary on the way to southern France; Allied air based on Sardinia could range over the entire Italian mainland and also over southern Germany; Sardinia was the gateway to the Po valley; Allied possession of Sardinia would bottle up the Italian Fleet in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Sicily, in contrast, would neither appreciably shorten the air distance to the industrial centers in the Po valley and southern Germany nor increase the threat to central Italy by air or ground forces.
Ambrosio, chief of Comando Supremo, saw Sardinia as being important only if the Allies intended to occupy the Italian mainland, and he thought that the Allies would figure a mainland campaign too costly and time-consuming for the results they could expect. He chose Sicily, which did not necessarily presuppose a later invasion of the Italian mainland. Sicily would assure the Allies freedom of sea movements in the Mediterranean, and would prevent the Italian Navy from shifting even its small ships and submarines from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Ionian and Adriatic Seas.57
Mussolini, possibly motivated by wishful thinking, expected the Allies to harass the Italian mainland by air attacks and perhaps try to occupy the major Italian islands for use as bases in future operations. But he did not believe that the Allies would attempt to invade the Italian boot. He thought that the Allies were mainly interested in free passage through the Mediterranean, a condition they would have achieved by securing the North African coast. Though doubting
that the Allies would consider it imperative to occupy Sicily or Sardinia, he thought Sicily the more directly threatened. In May 1943, as the Tunisian campaign drew toward its close, Mussolini was saying that the Allies would probably land in France for a direct attack on Germany, or perhaps in the Balkans.58
Hitler expected the Allies to land in Greece or the Balkans, and his reasoning was sound. Both areas were more important to the German economy than Italy. The populations were friendly to the Allies. An Allied invasion would supplement Russian pressure, force the dispersal of Axis troops over widely separated areas, and forestall a Russian occupation of the Balkans.59
Noting the movement of New Zealand troops back to the Middle East after the capture of Tunis, and inferring that the entire British Eighth Army was to follow, OKW guessed that the Allies were planning to mount an attack against Greece and the Balkans from eastern Mediterranean ports. The Germans gave credence to an Allied intelligence plant, and, as a consequence, OKW in May 1943 looked toward Greece.60
Kesselring saw the gravest threat in the western Mediterranean, and in May he was considering such places as Spain, the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, and Sicily. He ruled out southern France, northern Italy, and the Balkans as being too far removed from effective air support, a prerequisite, he figured, in any Allied planning. Guessing in mid-May from air reconnaissance photos of the distribution of Allied divisions and landing craft in North Africa, he chose Sicily first, Sardinia second.61
How well prepared were the Axis nations to meet the blow?
Comando Supremo had hoped in February 1943 that the Italian Fleet, with the support of air, both German and Italian, would defeat an Allied landing before the ground troops got ashore. But a survey made early in May indicated that the Navy, whose major elements consisted of three battleships, four cruisers, and ten destroyers, did not have enough surface vessels to defeat an invasion fleet. Submarines and small craft could only harass but not deter approaching enemy convoys.
The combined German and Italian air forces in the Mediterranean early in 1943 consisted of some 2,000 planes, one-half of them fighters. By May 1943 the number had dropped more than fifty percent, and of these many were obsolescent.
Hundreds of planes had been destroyed on the ground because of failure to camouflage and disperse them and because antiaircraft defenses proved ineffective.62
The Italian ground forces appeared completely unequal to the task of doing more than retarding or delaying an invasion. With Italian strength drained and equipment expended in Russia and North Africa, with very little having been done to improve coastal defenses, with units spread much too thin along the extensive Italian coast line, there was little hope of defensive success. “We may be able to put up an honorable defense against a large-scale landing,” a high-ranking Italian officer said, “but we have no chance to repel the enemy.”63
Italy urgently needed help, not only planes, tanks, and guns, but fuel and ammunition as well. The Germans promised to deliver 166 guns to Italy during the month of March 1943, but German requirements delayed the first shipment until the end of April. The Germans were ready to send planes and crews to the extent that Italy could provide airfields and ground defenses, but, while Ambrosio claimed the capacity of accommodating 2,500 aircraft, Göring considered the airfields unfit for immediate use and the protection offered inadequate.64
Italy needed ground troops, too, but Mussolini was reluctant to request them. Concerned chiefly with his tattered prestige, he sought to deny his dependence on Germany by trying to persuade himself that the Allies would not attempt to occupy Italian territory, and at the same time that there would be an upsurge of spirit among Italian units defending the homeland. If the burden of defense fell on German units, Mussolini’s dependence on Hitler would become too obvious, and he would lose any freedom for political maneuver.
The Italian Army commander in Sicily, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Comandante Designato d’Armata Mario Roatta, concerned purely with his military problem, advocated the use of German divisions, welcomed German offers of assistance, and provided his superiors with arguments on why German troops should be sought.65
Ambrosio adopted a middle position. From a professional point of view he was aware that German ground forces were indispensable for the defense of Italy, and occasionally he appeared willing to accept them. But Ambrosio was very conscious of representing a break with the tradition of intrusive German ascendancy, and he wished to disentangle Comando Supremo from the influence of OKW. To obviate German help, he withdrew the Italian Army from Russia; he tried to recall to Italy some of the divisions occupying France and the Balkans; and he prevented the dispatch to North Africa of an effective unit, the 4th (Livorno) Infantry Division, which was stationed in Sicily. Unfortunately for Ambrosio, he was endeavoring to reassert
Italian prestige at a time when the military need for German reinforcement was becoming irresistible. Unable to deny the need, he feared that the presence of German ground troops would make them master of the Italian house. He therefore sought zealously to guard and maintain the established principle of Italian command over the German troops stationed in Italy. But this, he recognized, was ultimately only a device to save face. Unable to take a wholly military view of Italian problems, neither did he envisage a purely military solution of the war, which he regarded as hopelessly lost.66
On 4 May 1943, Kesselring met with Mussolini to discuss how to meet the next Allied move after Tunisia. Mussolini said that the Allies might try to land on Italian soil, but he doubted that they would attempt an invasion. Perhaps he was trying to distinguish between a small Dieppe-style landing and a full-scale invasion such as that in North Africa. In any case, after Kesselring presented a lucid analysis of Allied capabilities, Mussolini agreed that Sardinia and Sicily might be threatened. With this admission stated, Kesselring offered the Italians the use of one German division.67
Two days later, Rintelen submitted to OKW a comprehensive and devastating report on the combat effectiveness of the Italian armed forces. They “have not up to now fulfilled the missions assigned them in this war,” he wrote, “and have actually failed everywhere.” The reasons, Rintelen found, were inadequate and insufficient armament and equipment; faulty training of the officers; and a lack of spirit and élan among the troops, the latter stemming from a “disbelief in a favorable outcome of the war.” Only with German support, he affirmed, could the Italians repel a large-scale invasion of their homeland.68
On the same day, 6 May, Kesselring again met with Mussolini. He told the Duce that Hitler had promised to send a division from Germany to Italy and that Hitler had ordered Kesselring to reconstitute into a complete unit those parts of the Hermann Göring Division that had not gone to Tunisia because of lack of transportation and that were, therefore, still in Italy. In addition to these two German divisions that would soon be available, Kesselring pointed out, other contingents of various German units still in Italy because they had not been shipped in time to Tunisia could he gathered together and formed into a third division. Though Kesselring insisted that Sardinia and Sicily needed immediate reinforcement, Mussolini preferred to believe that the Allies intended to land in France.69
Four days later, on 10 May, Ambrosio accepted the three divisions Kesselring had offered to reinforce the defense of Italy. Ambrosio planned to station one in Sicily, another in Sardinia, and a third on the mainland, stipulating carefully that they would be under his operational command.
In a subsequent discussion with Rintelen that same day, Ambrosio reiterated that the German divisions in Italy would be under Italian tactical command, and he declared unnecessary the retention of a German liaison group that had entered Italy with an Italian corps withdrawn from the Russian front. With the fall of Tunis, Ambrosio said, there would be less need for OKW liaison with Comando Supremo. Hereafter, he continued, German officers might be in contact with Superesercito, which had command in the national territory, but, in any case, he would issue the orders in this regard.70
On either the same day or a day later, Hitler offered Mussolini five fully equipped German mobile divisions for the defense of Italy. Mussolini at first was ready to accept, but Ambrosio induced him to reconsider, and on 12 May, Mussolini declined the new German offer.71 Mussolini’s refusal to accept Hitler’s offer of five additional German divisions constituted an important turning point in the Italo-German alliance.
Hitler considered two things essential for the defense of Germany: critical materials from the Balkans, in particular bauxite, copper, and chrome; and Italian political stability. Reports from German visitors to Italy had long warned of the possible collapse of fascism.72 As Hitler’s special adviser on the Mediterranean, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, embittered since his relief in Africa, excited the Führer’s suspicions of Italy as an ally.73 Increasingly apprehensive of Italian defection from the alliance, Hitler was concerned because he was convinced that if Italy withdrew from the war, whether voluntarily or otherwise, he would have to give the Mediterranean front at least temporary priority over the other theaters, even the east. Thus, in February and March 1943, partly as a precaution against Italian defection, partly to bolster Italy, and partly to reinforce the defenses of two of the most threatened areas in the Mediterranean, Hitler had ordered strong German elements placed on Sardinia and Sicily. He also gave high priority to Italy on the weapons being produced in Germany.74
In May, speculation in the German camp on Mussolini’s intentions, as well as on his strength, was far from favorable. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, noted that “the Duce no longer sticks to a clear line, either in his policies or in his war strategy.” Mussolini seemed unable to rely on anyone for help in waging the war or in carrying out his policies. “If it be true,” Goebbels remarked, “that the Führer, despite his tremendous powers, has nevertheless been lied to and cheated so often by the generals, how much more must that be the case with Mussolini!” The Duce had become “an old and tired man,” and Hitler was “not
at all convinced that the Italians will stay put when the heaviest strain comes.”75
On 19 May OKW submitted to Hitler a report on the defense of Italy. The situation, OKW declared, was hardly encouraging. There were no principles established to guide the cooperation of OKW and Comando Supremo. Italy demanded command and other prerogatives, yet failed to mobilize completely. Italy could not be defended on the basis of the alliance as then constituted. What were needed were predominant German influence on the command structure and German ground troops as “corset stays” for the Italian units. The three divisions proposed by Kesselring were not sufficient. If Sardinia were lost, the threat to northern Italy would be acute, and the Po valley was the key area for the whole of Italy, for the Balkans, for southern France, and for an Allied air offensive against southern Germany. OKW recommended an immediate build-up of supplies for the defense at least of northern Italy.76
A long discussion took place at the Führer’s headquarters on 20 May with Keitel, Rommel, Warlimont, and others in attendance. Like many of the conferences when Hitler was in the process of making up his mind, the talk was often desultory. Hitler listened to a description of conditions in Italy, heard how Italian commanders lacked confidence in their abilities, deliberated over the rumor that the German troops in Sicily were not well liked, learned that Italian authorities were doing nothing to check expressions of anti-German sentiment. Many Italians were apparently not to be trusted; some were Anglophiles. Rommel suggested that the Italians might suddenly close the Brenner frontier and cut off the German troops in Sicily and southern Italy. Gossip was reported that in certain circumstances the Italians might turn against the Germans. Hitler remarked that he would not be surprised if the Italian crown, with the support of the Army chiefs, tried to overthrow Mussolini and the Fascist party. At the end of the meeting, Hitler told Keitel that it would be well, in the event of Italian treachery, for Rommel to have authority to handle the situation.77
Two days later OKW issued Plan ALARICH, a course of action to be taken if fascism collapsed or Italy defected. Essentially, the plan provided for a German occupation of northern Italy, with evacuation by German troops of the rest of the Italian boot.
Initially, six or seven mobile divisions were to be withdrawn from the Eastern Front when necessary to carry out the occupation. In command of the occupation operation, Rommel expected an eventual force of thirteen or fourteen divisions. But when no Allied attack materialized and when the internal affairs of Italy seemed to quiet down, Hitler decided to launch an offensive in the east. As a consequence, the only divisions remaining to execute Plan ALARICH were a total
of eight that could be withdrawn from the command of OB WEST in France.78
While Hitler, the OKW, and Rommel made their secret preparations, Kesselring continued to cooperate with the Italians on the defense of Italy, and Mussolini and the Comando Supremo gradually diminished their opposition to additional ground reinforcement. After Kesselring visited Sicily in May 1943 and discussed matters thoroughly with the Italian generals, Rintelen on 22 May obtained from the Italians firm agreement to employ four German divisions—a panzer grenadier division (to be known later as the 15th) to be reconstituted in Sicily by 1 June and trained by 15 June; another panzer grenadier division (eventually designated the 90th) to be expanded from a brigade stationed in Sardinia; a panzer division (the Hermann Göring) to be reconstituted on the mainland; and another panzer division (the 16th) to arrive after being reconstituted in France. The Italians also agreed to permit General der Panzertruppen Hans Valentin Hube and his staff of the XIV Panzer Corps to come to Italy to prepare the German divisions for combat.79
Still more German troops for Italy were in the offing. Ambrosio, despite his wish to sever the German alliance, was becoming increasingly concerned by the Allied threat. And Kesselring, whose views were diametrically opposed to those of Rommel, believed that if the Italians cooperated, the Germans could defend the whole of Italy. As long as Mussolini remained in power, Hitler was willing to support him. And as the Italians demonstrated, even though reluctantly, their intention to react positively to the next Allied move, OKW made no plans to withdraw to a shorter line on the Italian mainland. Despite Rommel’s suspicions of Italian trickery, Plan ALARICH receded into the background, a vague expedient to be executed in the unlikely event of political change in Italy.
Mussolini was altogether uncomfortable. Resenting German domination of the war effort, anxious to save his Fascist regime, ambitious to restore Italy’s status and prestige, fearful of Allied capabilities and intentions, he was looking for a way out. But as hurtful as the acknowledgment of German superiority was, more painful was the acceptance of unconditional surrender. If he could, with German help, repulse an Allied invasion, if he could gain even a small moment of triumph, the conditions might be propitious for approaching the Western nations for a negotiated peace.
Italy was in a predicament. Fascist Italy, which Mussolini had advertised as a great power, was in the tragic and ridiculous position of being unable either to make war or to make peace. Exactly how ridiculous was to become apparent in June 1943 when the Allies made their next offensive move in the Mediterranean.