After Mussolini was deposed and Sicily fell, the new Italian government under marshal Pietro Badoglio tried, unsuccessfully, to switch the country’s support from the axis to the allies. The Allies had decided to invade Italy as a means of attacking German-occupied Europe via, in Churchill’s infamous phrase, the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Axis. The attritional slog of a campaign that was to follow would make a mockery of Churchill’s words. Matters might have been different, however, had the Germans not moved so swiftly to take over the entire peninsula and deprive the Allies of any easy progress. The German takeover forced the Allies to reassess all their strategic hopes in the Mediterranean. But the manner in which the Germans conducted it also shone a harsh light on the mentality of senior Wehrmacht commanders as they entered the fifth year of war, and the lengths to which they were prepared to go in order to plug a gap in the Reich’s now beleaguered front lines.
The Germans took over not only Italy itself, but also the Italian-occupied territories of southern Europe. In addition to the mounting pressures they now faced on the battlefronts, then, the German army and the Wehrmacht as a whole now had to take on a greatly magnified occupation commitment in areas that, particularly in the case of Italy’s former Balkan territories, were slipping dangerously from Axis control. They sought to meet this challenge with a baleful mix of divide-and-rule measures and sometimes savage terror. This did nothing to arrest the decline of German control in the Balkans; it did, however, fuel the havoc that was engulfing the region and its civilian population.
In the event of all Italy trying to change sides, the Germans had devised Operation Axis. This was to be a full-scale military takeover of Italy and its southern European territories, intended to secure communication lines, disarm Italian forces and organize the region’s defence against Allied attack. The Badoglio government’s shambolic failure to conceal its negotiations with the Allies prompted the Germans to initiate the operation immediately. The majority of Italian formations at most command levels allowed themselves to be disarmed, and their personnel interned. General Balck, in Italy as acting commander of XIV Panzer Corps, claimed in his memoirs that ‘during the disarmament operation one Italian officer told us that he could only hand over his battery once he had fired it. “Why don’t you aim 50 metres to the right and fire into the air?” He did that and then surrendered his battery. Another battery commander shot himself. His people cried and wailed for him, and started a huge lament. Then they happily dispersed.’ Farcical as this account may seem, such was Balck’s generally balanced post-war judgement of Italian troops’ fighting power that it is unlikely he was concocting such stories. In any case, the majority of Italian formations ‘went quietly’. This was despite the fact that most of the Italian army’s rank-and-file troops, less so its officers, were now thoroughly ill-disposed towards Fascism and the Axis. But on the several occasions when Italian units did refuse to comply with orders to lay down their arms, they were overpowered violently and often without mercy.
Some of the most ruthless treatment the Germans dealt out to the Italians was the work of elite troops that did not belong to the army: Waffen-SS, paratroopers and ‘Brandenburger’ special forces. Many army-led commands acted swiftly and ruthlessly against the Italians, but not murderously. On Corsica in the previously Italian-occupied zone of southern France, for instance, Field Marshal von Rundstedt informed Italian troops that they would be ‘treated as irregulars and shot if after twelve hours they did not give themselves up’. He concentrated their minds further by bringing forward the deadline by two hours, and reminding them that ‘from Turin, the “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” is marching [on your rear]’. At least Rundstedt was giving the Italians an opportunity to surrender. In southeast Europe, and particularly in parts of Greece, the Germans sometimes failed to observe any such niceties.
Responsibility for disarming Italian forces fell to the new commander-in-chief southeast, Field Marshal von Weichs. This new post, which had originally been created in December 1942, invested Weichs with greater powers than standard territorial Wehrmacht commanders. The importance attached to Weichs’s post reflected the particular size of the partisan threat in southeast Europe. In view of this, and of the region’s potential exposure to Allied invasion, the prospect of hundreds of thousands of armed, anti-Axis Italian troops at liberty this was not one that Weichs wished to entertain. When Operation Axis commenced, he ordered that, because Italian forces in southeast Europe had formally agreed to surrender their weapons, any of their troops failing to do so must be punished with all severity.
It was in the Greek islands, also within Weichs’s remit, that the Germans sought to make the most terrifying example of any Italian units that resisted. Such was the strategic position of these islands that the Germans feared the Allies would take them over amid the confusion of an Italian surrender, and threaten the entire German position in the eastern Mediterranean. They thus subjected any resisting Italian soldiers there to particular ferocity in order to deter their comrades from similar actions. In the Dodecanese, the Germans gave the Italians the option of surrendering beforehand. They overcame fierce Italian resistance on Rhodes, but Lieutenant General Ulrich Kleemann, the garrison commander, initially refused to execute captured Italian military personnel. However, his superiors then compelled him to do so. In the Ionian islands, XXII Mountain Corps likewise gave the Italian troops on Corfu the option of surrendering, but the 1st Mountain Division still seems to have shot many Italian soldiers who tried to surrender after the fighting.
Nowhere was German conduct worse than on the Ionian island of Cephalonia. The army units that attacked the Italians there were the 104th Light Division, Fortress Grenadier Battalion 910 and, again, the 1st Mountain Division. On 18 September, the OKW informed Field Marshal von Weichs that, ‘due to the cruel and treacherous conduct on Cephalonia, no prisoners are to be taken’. Two days later, General Löhr got in on the act, re-emphasizing the exceptional nature of the situation and the need for a total lack of consideration. There is no evidence that the German formations attacking the Italians on Cephalonia even made them aware of what awaited them if they did not surrender. The most exhaustive study of the massacres on Cephalonia has concluded that about 2,500 Italian soldiers perished. Some were killed in the initial bombardment and fighting, but the great majority were murdered after being taken prisoner. In some cases the Germans did not even bury the bodies, but weighted them with stones and threw them out to sea.
The 1st Mountain Division and the 104th Light Division had both fought at length in the Yugoslav anti-Partisan campaign; indeed, the 1st Mountain Division had also fought extensively in the east. The ferocity with which the war was waged in both theatres made the soldiers of such divisions more likely to be in full agreement with the ferocity expected of them in Operation Axis. However, some Italian soldiers from the groups that were massacred were able to drag themselves away, wounded, and find the help of the Greek resistance. Moreover, the Germans eventually spared a number of Italian soldiers on Cephalonia, together with medical officers and military priests. None of this, however, detracts from the fact that approaching 2,500 Italian soldiers were massacred after they had surrendered. This death toll comprised by far the biggest portion of the approximately 6,500 Italian soldiers who met this fate, the majority of them in the former Italian occupation zones of Greece and Yugoslavia. Around the same number were killed in the fighting during Operation Axis. Another thirteen thousand drowned when the transport ships they were on either capsized through overloading or were bombed by the Allies.
Although the ruthlessly swift character of Operation Axis was in large part driven by strategic necessity, further influences gave the Germans’ conduct an even sharper edge. There was widespread anger among the military leadership that Germany had been knifed in the back by an erstwhile ally. Italy’s attempt to change sides in 1943 awoke memories of 1914, when Italy had shirked its commitment to the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary before later joining the side of the Allies. General Balck, for instance, bitterly raked over the embers in his memoirs, remarking that ‘for the second time in just a few decades Italy had broken treaty with its allies’ and even appearing to question its future commitment to NATO. It also reinforced the contempt many German officers and soldiers had felt with regard to the Italians since their entry into the current war.
For one thing, although the Italians had frequently inflicted cruel treatment upon the ‘subjects’ of their Balkan empire, still more so upon those of their African colonies, German officials had long regarded Italian imperial aspirations as a bad joke. Major General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau was the Wehrmacht’s official representative to the NDH government. In June 1941, he told Field Marshal Keitel: ‘if this laughable, inflated Italian imperialism is not liquidated during this war or on its conclusion, the war will have had no meaning’. German soldiers themselves often regarded their Italian comrades-in-arms, however unfairly, as lackadaisical, slovenly and unsoldierly. Typical was the view of Unteroffizier Karl R. of the 5th Panzer Division when he described a brush with Italian soldiers in Greece in May 1941: ‘Yesterday we were in Patras. There we saw our first Italian soldiers. Correction – we’ve seen quite a few who had previously been captured. And these Italian types please us even less. A street patrol, for instance, of about eight men with machine guns and so on, was just walking through the streets, larking about, singing arm in arm, a civilian among them. That would be forbidden with us.’
Of course, perceptions such as this helped feed the equally widespread, equally unjustified view that Italian troops were useless in the field. And during Operation Axis, the two German army group commanders in Italy itself – Rommel in the north and Kesselring in the south – issued a joint declaration along similar lines; it maligned the Italian soldiers and officers who opposed German orders to surrender as ‘riff-raff’.
Operation Axis was not about unbridled slaughter, however. For one thing, Rommel and Kesselring were at least giving the Italian troops the opportunity to surrender. In the northern Italian jurisdiction of Rommel’s Army Group B, Italian troops were disarmed more swiftly than they were elsewhere: in ten days, the army group disarmed eighty-two generals, thirteen thousand officers, and over 400,000 NCOs and rank-and-file soldiers. They almost certainly committed criminal executions as well, but on a smaller scale than elsewhere. And knowing Rommel’s aversion to brutal anti-partisan measures, it is perhaps not that surprising that even Waffen-SS units of his army group treated captured partisans as POWs during the weeks following Operation Axis.
On the other hand, the welter of merciless commands directed against Italian soldiers during Operation Axis, including Rommel and Kesselring’s opprobrious talk of ‘riff-raff’, was bound to tap into the wellspring of anti-Italian contempt among many German soldiers. Over the weeks that followed, soldiers’ inhibitions weakened to a point where army divisions feared for their discipline. Thus, on 21 October 1943, for instance, the 16th Panzer Division reported: ‘since the outbreak of hostilities on the Italian peninsula, there are ever more frequent cases of individual soldiers or members of small commands roaming through the land like marauders from the Thirty Years War’. Both Rommel and Kesselring felt compelled to intervene against the wilder excesses.