Operation Axis

Moltke also said something else that became famous. Writing in his History of the 1870 War (Geschichte des Krieges 1870), he claimed that

It is an illusion to believe that one can work out a plan of campaign far in advance and then carry it through to the end. The first collision with the enemy’s main body, and the outcome of that clash, creates a new situation (Lage).

Usually shortened in military discourse to “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” it has become one of the most quoted aphorisms in the canon. The condensed version usually leaves off the important qualifier about “the first collision with the enemy’s main body” (der erste Zusammenstoss mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht), but it works nonetheless as a general truism, warning the commander that the enemy will have something to say about how things go.

The only problem with this famous quote is that it is not true. Sometimes—rarely, to be sure, but sometimes—your plans go off exactly as you draw them up, or even succeed beyond your wildest dreams. The Wehrmacht had already had a few such moments in this war: Case Yellow in 1940, for example, or Operation 25, the campaign in Yugoslavia in 1941. Another wildly successful undertaking was Operation Axis. In any operation, so much depends on the attitude of the enemy. Some fight tooth and nail, some put up a good appearance, and some disappear altogether. In response to Operation Axis, the Italian army chose the third option.

Operation Axis deserves more scholarly attention than it has gotten. The operation was of immense scope and vast complexity and could have gone wrong at virtually any point. Even a casual glance at the operational plan would seem to uncover any number of places where it could have collapsed. Beyond that, it was something completely new. Military history knows no operation quite like it: a murderous and bloody assault on an erstwhile ally in which the casualties would run into the tens of thousands. Perhaps only the Wehrmacht, one of the most ruthless military organizations of all time, one that executed tens of thousands of its own soldiers in the course of the war, could have run it as effectively.

The Germans had two army groups in Italy. Army Group B (under Rommel) was in upper Italy, with its headquarters at Garda. Despite its designation as an army group, Rommel’s command was essentially the size of a small army, with eight divisions grouped into four corps: Corps Witthöft (44th and 71st Infantry Divisions); LXXXVII Corps (76th and 94th Infantry Divisions); II S.S. Panzer Corps (S.S. Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and 24th Panzer Division); and LI Mountain Corps (65th and 305th Infantry Divisions, still in the process of arriving in September). Overseeing this relatively modest array, Rommel’s mission was to disarm no fewer than three Italian armies. They included the 8th Army, headquartered in Padua (XXIII, XXIV, and XXXV Corps); the 5th Army, headquartered in Viterbo (II and XVI Corps); and the 4th Army, headquartered in Sospel in southern France (I, XII, and XV Corps). The task of disarming the 4th Army would also involve units from the German 19th Army, currently occupying the region as part of Army Group D.

The second main grouping of German forces in Italy was Kesselring’s OB-Süd. He too had eight divisions, grouped into three corps: XI Parachute Corps (Fliegerkorps) in the vicinity of Rome (2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision and 3rd Panzergrenadier Division); XIV Panzer Corps (1st Parachute Panzer Division Hermann Göring, 15th Panzergrenadier Division, and 16th Panzer Division), in the region of Naples; and LXXVI Panzer Corps (26th Panzer Division, 29th Panzergrenadier Division, and the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division) in the far south. Once again, the mission was daunting: to disarm the Italian forces around Rome and points south. The sector around Rome itself was Kesselring’s biggest worry because it included the heaviest formations in the Italian army: the Corpo d’Armata motocorazzato (literally a “motorized army corps,” but usually described in German sources, quite rightly, as a “Panzer corps”). It included the Centauro and Ariete armored divisions, the motorized infantry division Piave, as well as the Granatiere de Sardegna (“Sardinian Grenadiers”) infantry division; the XVII Corps (motorized infantry division Piacenza, infantry divisions Re and Lupi di Toscana, and the 220th and 221st Coastal Divisions); and the Corpo d’Armata de Roma (the “Rome Army Corps”), including the infantry division Sassari, the light infantry division Podgora, and an armored infantry regiment. Further to the south lay the Italian 7th Army (headquartered in Potenza), including the IX, XIX, and XXXI Corps. Kesselring was also responsible for disarming Italian forces on the islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Elba. He had the Reichsführer-S.S. Brigade on Corsica, as well as the 90th Panzergrenadier Division on Sardinia. But here, too, German forces were vastly outnumbered, with two Italian corps on Sardinia (the XIII and XXX) and one on Corsica (the VII). As for Elba, it had only a single Italian coastal regiment in occupation, along with garrison troops—some 6,000 men in all. The German contingent on this beautiful little island numbered a mere 80 men, however, and they couldn’t have been feeling very comfortable.

We could say the same for the entire Wehrmacht in Italy. There is no German documentation to show that anyone was particularly confident that Operation Axis would go smoothly. On the contrary, the entire operation took place in a state of the highest consternation on the German side, especially with the Allies about to descend somewhere on the Italian coast. Kesselring, Rommel, and the rest thought that they could handle the Italians, and probably give a decent accounting against the Allies. No one was excited about trying to do both at the same time.

There was one last element of uncertainty. Although everyone agreed that the mission was to “disarm” the Italians, Entwaffnung was an undefined term at best. In the course of the operation, which commenced on the evening of September 8, 1943 Entwaffnung came to mean almost anything, from surrounding Italian barracks with tanks and issuing a bold pronunciamento demanding the surrender of the unit, to protracted negotiations between the German and Italian commanders, to German appeals to their old comrades and brothers in arms from North Africa. Kesselring used all of those stratagems in order to induce the Italian formations guarding Rome—the Centauro and Ariete armored divisions and the motorized infantry division Piave—to lay down their weapons on September 9, a crucial factor in keeping open the German lines of communication to the formations stranded in southern Italy.

It didn’t always go so peacefully, however. The first attempt by the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division to rush the capital came up against tough resistance at Manziana and Monterosi, and there would be fighting up and down the peninsula and in the islands: Naples, Barletta, Monterotondo, and Corsica. This was low-intensity stuff, but a few spots witnessed full-scale pitched battles. The most notable was the Greek island of Cephalonia, where German mountain troops (Gebirgsjäger) under General Hubert Lanz had to overcome tough Italian resistance from the Acqui Division. The fighting here lasted until September 21, with Acqui surrendering and the Germans shooting thousands of Italian prisoners who fell into their hands.

The Wehrmacht carried out the entire operation with maximum speed and maximum brutality—its standard calling cards. When first drawn up, Operation Axis had been a fairly sober theoretical exercise dealing with the problems that might arise as a result of an Italian surrender. Now, however, Hitler had declared the surrender to be an act of treachery, with his ire directed personally at Badoglio and the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III. What had begun as an objective operational study now morphed into what one source calls “a murderous act of revenge, marked by resentment and accentuated by racism.” Kesselring may appear to us as “Smiling Albert” in all those photographs and Wochenschau newsreels, but a smile can mask many emotions. He supposedly told an associate at the time that he “only had hatred left for the Italians,” and he described the Italian capitulation as “the most dastardly treachery” and “a truce with the enemy behind our backs.” Although he wasn’t averse to appealing to the Italians to continue the fight against the Allies or disarming them if they refused, that is where his spirit of charity ended: “No quarter can be given to turncoats,” he ordered, and urged his men to “mow down” anyone who resisted German power in Italy. Hitler rarely smiled in photographs, and no one should be surprised that his anger exceeded even that of Kesselring. As far as the Führer was concerned, the entire “clique of traitors” around Badoglio deserved to be shot.

It is difficult in reading accounts of Operation Axis in action to avoid the conclusion that the Wehrmacht carried it out with an unseemly enthusiasm. If the German army were a person, we might be tempted to psychoanalyze him. Perhaps this was a case of transference, the shifting of anger from the enemy it could not really hurt to a helpless partner within easy reach. The numbers are not easy to come by, but the Germans killed somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 Italian officers and men in the course of Operation Axis, many of them shot after they had surrendered. Moreover, the operation resulted in over 600,000 “military internees” (Militärinternierte), a term chosen deliberately so that their German captors could evade the rules of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. Most became slaves in the armaments factories serving the Reich.

Finally, the loot was prodigious. The Italian fleet got away, making for Malta and the Balearic Islands, but the Germans captured the equipment of the Regio Esercito and Regia Aeronautica nearly in toto: 977 tanks, armored cars, and assault guns; 5,568 guns; 8,736 mortars; 1,173 antitank guns; and much more. Italian equipment wasn’t up to the standards of the other powers, but it was good enough for a weapons-strapped Wehrmacht. Just as with previous generations of “booty weapons” (Beutewaffen) from Czechoslovakia in 1939 and France in 1940, Italian weaponry would play a crucial role in equipping second-line German formations and garrison troops.

The operation was a signal triumph, perhaps even the “the last victory of the German Wehrmacht,” as some wags called it. The question must still arise, however: Why was it so easy? The numbers were imposing enough. By the summer of 1943, there were 3,488,000 Italians in uniform in Italy, southern France, or the Balkans, facing about 600,000 Germans. After a few short days of Operation Axis, the attackers had disarmed about a million men. The other two and a half million had disappeared, seemingly without a trace. It was an unprecedented event in modern military history.

In attempting to explain the collapse, historians have customarily assigned blame to Marshal Badoglio and the king. Neither one had informed the armed forces in advance of the surrender negotiations. Secrecy was absolutely essential if the Germans were not to find out. Having delivered his belated radio announcement, Badoglio fled Rome, taking the king with him and heading for the safety of Allied lines in the south. They made good their escape, resurfacing in Brindisi a few days later. It was arguably correct for the king to try and flee, as a way of maintaining some sort of political continuity, but the disappearance of the high command was a catastrophe. We cannot overestimate the surprise to the rank and file. The last time Badoglio had been on the radio was in July, just after deposing Mussolini. Back then, he had announced, “The war goes on and Italy remains faithful to its word” (La guerra continua e l’Italia resta fedele alla parola data). He had been silent ever since. Now he had reappeared suddenly to announce that it was all over. The disappearance of higher authority left the army in the worst possible position, blindsided and leaderless, without higher orders or strategy. It also had an adversary breathing down its neck, one who was fully prepared, heavily armed, and as ruthless as they come.

Perhaps, however, the mangled surrender of Italy was the result of systemic factors, deeper reasons that go beyond personality, beyond Badoglio’s double-dealing and the king’s waffling. Negotiating the surrender of a wartime power was a highly complex undertaking for everyone concerned. It had to balance Italian sensibilities, Allied strategic imperatives, and the presence of the Wehrmacht all at once. The notion of treating it as a closely held affair, in essence a plot by a small cabal of Allied and Italian officers, was naive in the extreme. So was the belief that both the military forces and public opinion of a modern Western state could simply turn around on a dime in wartime. These are all factors to weigh in the balance when evaluating the Italian surrender and the lightning success of Operation Axis, and not all of them were Badoglio’s fault.

In theory, surrender should be the easiest thing in the world. What happened in Italy is yet another illustration of the vast gulf separating war in theory from war in reality. Let us leave the final words on Operation Axis to the pertinent eighth volume of the German official history, Germany and the Second World War (Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg). Like all of this imposing work, the section on Operation Axis is magisterial, sober in tone, and certainly not given to overstatement or breathlessness. This is one of those times that it slips out of character, however. The attempt to work out a smooth Italian exit from the Axis and a seamless switching of sides was a worthy one, the official history argues. It collapsed, however, “in a jungle of illusion, fraud, deception, misunderstanding, incompetence, cowardice, dilettantism, and indecision.” That just about covers it.

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