History came full-circle on 29 October 1944, when Benito Mussolini made his last public speech in Milan. Exactly twenty-two years before, he had set out from this same city in the ‘March on Rome’ that brought him to power. That early triumph had been preceded by a period of violent struggle, just as years of difficult warfare seemed to culminate somehow in the 1944 mass-rally. The outpouring of popular support it generated for him inspired his sometimes flagging spirits, while stiffening the backbone of the Salo Republic under an increasingly heavy siege from the air. His words were broadcast from the Lyric Theater around the world, and commentators everywhere observed that, despite all the reverses he had experienced in the previous year, the Duce seemed to lack none of his fiery rhetoric.
He could not help comparing Italy’s present international crisis to the national challenge presented to her in 1922: “From this city, a new energy went out to save our country from decline and create an epoch of self-determination whose spiritual achievements will outlast every one of its merely material manifestations. So too, that same, ever-young dynamic paces forth from this same place to rescue our invaded land from total destruction, and instead spark restoration of those eternal ideals that made us great!”
Milanese acclaim for Mussolini was not generated solely by celebration of Fascism’s most important anniversary. That same month, shortly before his commemorative speech, volunteer soldiers of the RSI’s Monterosa Division smashed an advance undertaken by superior numbers of Brazilian forces. The Italians followed up their successful defense with a counter-attack of their own that routed the South Americans. More than two years before, President Getulio Vargas had striven to maintain Brazil’s neutrality, but came under increasing pressure from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to enter the war against Italy, even though neither country felt itself aggrieved by each other. While the majority of Brazil’s military, in the army, was inclined toward Fascism, its small navy and smaller air force favored alliance with the Western Allies.
According to historian, James P. Duffy, “Vargas walked a tight-rope between his pro-Axis and pro-Allied military factions so well that American diplomats themselves were never sure what his true feelings were. A State Department recommendation that he request the assistance of U.S. troops to bolster his defenses was politely turned down. Instead, Brazil requested weapons for its army to use in its own defense (against Argentina, not Germany or Italy. Joseph) U.S. military officials were reluctant to send arms for fear that they would be used against American forces should the day come that the United States had to take up the defense of the Brazilian bulge against a German threat.”
Vargas’s lack of enthusiasm for joining the Allies so alarmed Roosevelt, he had his military advisors draw up a ‘Joint Basic Plan for the Occupation of Northeastern Brazil’. F.D.R., who publicly decried Hitler’s invasion of neutral countries, was about to undertake the same measures in South America. On 21 December 1940, he approved Operation Rubber Plan, designed to open with the unannounced naval bombardment of Brazilian shore installations as a prelude to an amphibious landing of Marines.
“Earmarked for action were the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 5th Marines,” writes Duffy, “supported by a fleet centered on the battleship USS Texas, the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, and twelve troop transports. Once the beachhead was secured by the Marines, the 9th Army Division Reinforced was to relieve the Marines and become the occupying force, holding as many strategic locations as possible, with special attention to the airports. Should additional forces be required, the 45th Army Infantry Division was to be in ready reserve. These forces, which were involved in amphibious landing exercises were to be prepared to sail to Brazil on ten days’ notice from the President.”
When Vargas got wind of Operation Rubber Plan in January 1942, he was so horrified, he immediately broke diplomatic ties with Italy, and allowed 150 U.S. Marines to be stationed at several Brazilian airfields. These actions could not quell F.D.R.’s suspicions, however, and it was not until May, when Vargas signed the Brazilian-American Defense Agreement drawn up for his endorsement by Roosevelt’s men in Washington, that “the planned assault and occupation were dropped.”
Despite Yankee intimidation, the Brazilian President tried to keep his country from being dragged into the fighting. More than eight months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, he held back from committing his armed forces in any way, until finally caving in to U.S. pressure, reluctantly issuing a declaration of war against the Axis. The expeditionary force he very gradually assembled was not deployed until July 1944, when it joined the Allies in northern Italy, and was subsequently mauled by the Monterosa Division. This early October victory regained not only territory, but morale, shifting the RSI’s center of power to Milan, where Mussolini relocated his offices from Salo on 18 December.
While he was being cheered through the streets of Milan, the U.S. 5th Army, still bogged down in the mountains south of Bologna and hampered by the headlong flight of their Brazilian allies, was forced to call off its latest offensive. German and Italian SS defending the city beat back all attacks. In just six days, the Americans there suffered 15,700 casualties, beyond anything with which the replacement system could keep up. Mussolini and Marshal Graziani sought to exploit this defensive victory with a fresh offensive, Winterstorm. While German forces were thrusting through France again at the Battle of the Bulge, the Italian Monterosa Division and German 148th Infantry Division simultaneously struck against the American line in the Apennine Mountains. Allied intelligence had dismissed the morale of the Monterose as ‘very low’, and planned to move against it after Christmas. But the Italo-German offensive beat them by twenty-four hours.
In the pre-dawn darkness of 27 December, two German assault battalions rushed the Sommocolonia garrison defended by the U.S. F Company, 2nd Battalion, 366th Regiment supplemented with Communist partisans. Only eighteen of the defenders survived to run for their lives. But the heavy weight of Operation Winterstorm was directed against the 92nd Buffalo Infantry Division, made up entirely of Afro-American troops led by white officers, Major-General Edward M. Almond and Colonel Raymond G. Sherman.
Although eighty medium and heavy field-guns, together with some first-rate German artillery batteries, equipped Operation Winterstorm, its soldiers attacked without tanks or air-cover, all of which the enemy possessed in abundance. Even so, one town after another fell in rapid succession. As a standard precaution against just such an enemy assault, Almond and Sherman had rigged high explosives at vital bridges, but the surprised troops forgot to detonate them. The attackers were rich in mortars, and these they used in concentrated groups to maximize their fire effect. Townspeople in Gallicano, located just outside the battle-zone, reported that U.S. F Company exhibited every sign of panic, fleeting resistance, and general chaos. By nightfall, all attacks were suspended, because the entire American line had crumbled.
The next day, 28 December, the offensive was resumed without resistance. A German assault column literally walked into Pian di Coreglia, its objective, without having to fire a shot. Patrols sent forward as far as the distant village of Calavorno reported that the Buffalo Division appeared to be still in full retreat. Indeed, it had withdrawn from combat in headlong flight. Less than 100 prisoners were taken, because the rest of their comrades were more fleet-footed. But the Axis soldiers netted numerous Browning 12.7 mm machine-guns, bazookas, mortars, and ammunition, together with stocks of much-needed food.
Over the next four days, U.S. warplanes attacked the Axis ground troops trying to defend themselves with a few 20mm and 88mm anti-aircraft guns. American pilots shot up everything in sight, including the Camporgiano hospital, where Germans and Italians were casualties, along with a number of captured G.I.s also being treated for wounds. By New Year’s Day, the murderous air strikes had been called off. Nothing could dislodge the gains made by Operation Winterstorm. These comprised a conquered wedge twenty kilometers wide and nine kilometers deep which stood largely intact throughout the rest of the war. In fact, its defenders continued fighting for days after Mussolini’s death the following year.
According to historian Richard Lamb, “Graziani’s Italian troops were no match for fierce, battle-hardened Gurkhas” of the British 8th Indian Division, which was supposed to have immediately counter-attacked after the Buffalo soldiers pulled back, recapturing Barga. In reality, the town had already been evacuated as unnecessary before the Gurkhas arrived. They encountered no opposition, other than a trio of stragglers–two Italians and a single German soldier–taken later in the vicinity. This only was the 8th Indian Division’s ‘fierce counter-attack’.
In reports to their superiors, the Buffalo Division’s white commanding officers, Almond and Sherman, blamed its failure to contain the Axis offensive on the allegedly poor fighting quality of their black troops. But both German and Italian veterans of the fighting claimed that Afro-American soldiers often resisted with resolute determination. They were routed because of the Operation’s complete surprise, which might have similarly affected any defenders informed by their own leadership that no such attack was expected or even possible.
The propaganda value of Winterstorm was considerable. It discouraged the anti-Fascist partisans, many of whom had already lost stomach for civil war. Even before the Offensive began, the Communist Garibaldi units disbanded and gave up their weapons to German forces from late November to early December. Winterstorm further depressed the Americans’ already low morale following the bloody collapse of their October operations. At the close of the previous month, Fascist militia units seized the so-called ‘Free Republic of Alba’, the first Communist outpost in northern Italy. Simultaneously, the outnumbered, under-equipped men of the RSI’s Monterosa Division and Germany’s 148th Infantry Division drew an influx of new volunteers. The Axis had stood the test of combat at its worst and could still conquer, even at this late hour in the war. Among the high mountains of his homeland, Graziani had redeemed his reputation among Mussolini’s followers as a competent, loyal general.
Operation Winterstorm was the last hurrah of the Axis in Italy, however. Although the gains it won and subsequent attacks carried out by the Italian SS mostly held the enemy at bay throughout the first quarter of 1945, by late March, the RSI’s supply problems had become hopelessly acute. A 200,000-strong partisan army was rising like an irrepressible tidal-wave to swamp the RSI, which had already lost total domination of the skies to American fighter-bombers. In early April, its headquarters at Lake Garda could no longer be defended, and Mussolini was faced with the final, major decision of his life: Establish a last-ditch effort with 5,000 of his closest followers before Valtellina, still controlled by the Waffen-SS, or make a break for the Swiss border.
Incredibly, RSI morale remained mostly high until the last day of hostilities, even among the Volontari de Francia, attached to the Fulmine Battalion of the X Decima MAS 2nd regiment. As late as April 1945, its French volunteers were still able to pull off some stunning successes against overwhelming odds, such as their firefight in the 162nd German Division’s sector, where they closed a gap opened by British commandos. Four months earlier, just 214 men of the Fulmine successfully defended the Tarnova della Selva outpost from an attack by 1,300 Yugoslav partisans. A week later, on 26 January, two companies of the Barbarigo battalion routed Tito’s forces at the Bainsizza plateau, as part of the RSI’s ongoing success in the face of enormous opposition. These, however, were the only bright spots in an otherwise darkening reality.
“Everything was falling apart,” his son, Romano, remembered, “and yet, even in February of 1945, Il Duce refused to give up hope.” Along with the Volontari de Francia and Fulmine, thousands of other volunteers swore to make a last stand for and with Mussolini. “He planned to reach Valtellina with a group of his most loyal followers. He was assured there would be at least 30,000 troops with whom he could lead the final resistance against the Allies’ invasion. For him, this last battle would have represented a sort of purifying sacrifice. ‘This will be the Thermopylae of Fascism,’ he used to say. ‘Like Leonidas and his heroes, I will sacrifice myself to block the enemy’s way.’”
Throughout March, Mussolini enthusiastically busied himself with preparations for a showdown with the enemy at his own ‘Fiery Gates’. For years, Allied leaders vowed to stand him in front of an international tribunal for crimes against humanity. “I can already see the trial they will stage for me at Madison Square Garden,” he laughed, “with people in the stands looking at me as if I were a caged beast. No, it is better to die with weapons raised. Only this can be an end worthy of my existence.”
But early the next month, he inexplicably and irrevocably changed his mind. “These comrades willing to join me at Valtellina will be of more use to their country rebuilding it in the hard times to come,” he told Renato Ricci, head of the RSI militia.10 In fact, they went on to make a final stand of their own for Fascism without the Duce. Led by Italian SS leader, Major Mario Carita, they were finally surrounded by U.S. forces on 20 May, refused to lay down their arms, and perished to the last man in a massive artillery barrage.
Even with the end approaching, Mussolini could not help envisioning the future beyond his own death. “The present war will produce an alteration in order of rank. Great Britain, for instance, is destined to become a second-class power, in view of disclosure of Russian and American strength … In a short time, Fascism will once more shine on the horizon. First of all, because of the persecution to which the Liberals will subject it, showing that liberty is something to reserve to oneself and refuse to others. And, secondly, because of a nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ that little by little will gnaw at the Italian heart. All those who fought in the European and, especially, the African wars will suffer particularly badly from this nostalgia. Time will pass, and the days of Fascism will be missed.”
He was rudely snapped back into present reality on 23 April when Marshal Graziani reported that the Wehrmacht in Italy was about to surrender. That evening, Mussolini decided to make for Switzerland, because he believed only there would he have an opportunity to publicize a collection of original documents that would, in his mind, justify his past conduct before world history. Both the German military authorities and Fascist die-hards strenuously urged him to forego any attempt to reach Switzerland, because the entire countryside, they warned, swarmed with partisans. His subordinates had already prepared, without his authorization, several means of escape. There was a CANT seaplane or a Sparviero tri-motor to take him to Franco’s Spain, a four-motor Piaggio air-ambulance capable of reaching the Canary Islands, and a long-range Savoia-Marchetti Marsupiale standing by for a transatlantic flight all the way to what would soon become Juan Peron’s Argentina.
Hermann Goering, who certainly had enough of his own problems at the time, offered a Junkers-52, its Luftwaffe insignia and swastikas replaced by deceptive Croatian insignia, to take Claretta Petacci, along with her parents and sister, Myriam, to Barcelona. But the Duce’s mistress preferred to remain by the side of her lover. His son, Vittorio, pleaded with him to hide from the blood-crazed partisans in a Milan apartment at least until the Anglo-Americans arrived. Mussolini shunned all these avenues of escape, even unto the last possible moment. “I don’t want to beg for salvation,” he stated emphatically, “while the finest men are sacrificing themselves for me and for Italy’s dignity!”
Undeterred by warnings of local partisan activity and not tempted by offers of refuge, he set out in a German SS motor column that included a small truck carrying his precious papers. “If I advance,” he had always said, “follow me. If I retreat, kill me. If they kill me, vindicate me.”