Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino, by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier Oil on canvas, 1863
Battle of Montebello

The great international hope of the Italian patriots was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French. Known as Napoleon III (though Napoleon II, like the boy Louis XVII, had never been crowned), his credentials were promising. His paternal uncle (Napoleon) had been King of Italy, his maternal uncle (Eugène) had been Viceroy of Italy, and he himself had spent childhood winters in Rome, where his mother had taken her sons after separating from their father, the former King of Holland. Italy thus became a second homeland to him. As a youth he considered himself an Italian patriot, planning an insane plot in Rome in 1830 and participating a year later in insurrections further north. Thereafter he turned his conspiratorial attentions to France, where, following a couple of farcical attempted coups, he became President of the Second Republic and four years later, in 1852, Emperor of the French. Although in 1848 France had for once stayed out of a conflict in Lombardy, the prospect of one day fighting on the soil of the first napoleonic triumphs remained a temptation difficult to discard.

Cavour was desperate for Napoleon’s help, convinced that the emperor was the one sovereign in Europe prepared to assist the project he persistently referred to as ‘the aggrandizement of Piedmont’. Since his fruitless adventure in the Crimea, the prime minister had become increasingly bellicose, talking repeatedly about expelling the Austrians from Italy and marching on Vienna. By the late 1850s, Napoleon was eager to promote the first part of this scheme, though he made various annoying demands of his putative ally. After Felice Orsini, a former Mazzinian, had tried to blow him up in Paris in early 1858, he insisted that Piedmont impose a censorship stricter than Cavour wanted, and as a result a small and harmless republican journal in Genoa was closed down. Earlier he had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British to expel Mazzini from London although he, who had himself once been a refugee in England plotting conspiracies for the continent, might have felt some empathy with the Italian revolutionary.

Napoleon had a number of motives for bringing a French army back to the plains of northern Italy. One of them may have been atavistic: warfare in the Po Valley between the great Catholic powers of Europe was a tradition going back so far that it seemed almost a normal form of international behaviour. A more important one was national and political. France’s military prestige after Waterloo had not been sufficiently restored by its campaign in the Crimea, and it required a more solid victory on a more traditional battleground to regain pre-eminence in Europe. Such an outcome might bring a further bonus in the shape of territory, in particular Nice and Savoy, which Cavour was prepared to concede if he obtained Lombardy and Venetia. A third motive, also important, was the emperor’s own need for prestige. Determined like his uncle to establish the Bonaparte dynasty among European royalty, he insisted that Victor Emanuel’s young and high-minded daughter Clotilde should marry his middle-aged and dissolute cousin Prince Napoleon. Although not nearly as military or militarist as the first Napoleon, he also felt the need for a little personal gloire to increase his popularity at home. In this particular quest he succeeded, his victories against the Austrians in 1859 and the subsequent peace being celebrated with bonfires across his empire.

Yet there was another, more altruistic motive. Remembering his youth in Italy, he came to share some of the country’s patriotic aspirations, even if he hoped that a future north Italian state would depend on France as an ally. Unusually for anyone, especially a sovereign, his attempted assassination made him feel more sympathetic to the cause of the aspiring assassin. He tried hard to save Orsini from the guillotine and, when this proved politically impossible – Orsini’s bombs had missed their target but killed eight bystanders – he asked the Italian to appeal to him in a public letter to support the patriotic cause. Thereafter Napoleon was willing to fight for that cause so long as Cavour could make it appear that Austria was the aggressor.

In July 1858 the French emperor and the Piedmontese prime minister met secretly at Plombières, a spa town in Lorraine, where they broadly agreed on how a future Italy might be organized. After their war with Austria they envisaged that the peninsula would have three sizable states: Piedmont, expanded to include Parma, Modena, Lombardy-Venetia and the Romagna; Tuscany, enlarged by the addition of Umbria and the Papal Marches; and the Two Sicilies, where the Bourbons might be removed and replaced by the emperor’s cousin, Lucien Murat, a son of King Joachim. It was not an impossible plan though it was naive to expect the Marches, with few historic links to Tuscany, to submit to Florence on the other side of the Apennines. Apart from Austria, the chief loser in the scheme would be the papacy, which would be deprived of most of its territories, but the pope, as a compensatory gesture, might become president of an Italian confederation.

Yet none of this plan could be implemented if a pretext could not be found for starting a war. And how, wondered Cavour, could you provoke a conflict that your enemy didn’t want while pretending it was you yourself who was reluctant to fight? Another difficulty was that public opinion in France and Piedmont was opposed to a war. There was little enthusiasm even among the patriots of Lombardy, where, after a repressive period in the early 1850s, Austrian rule had become more tolerant under the new viceroy, the Archduke Maximilian, later to be the ill-fated and short-reigned Emperor of Mexico. In England as well people were opposed to the idea of a conflict that was looking increasingly like a simple land-grab. When in January 1859 Victor Emanuel told the parliament in Turin about ‘the cry of anguish’ he was hearing from all over Italy – a phrase inserted at the request of Napoleon – the British were not impressed, suspecting rightly that the cries, if they existed, were extremely muffled. The leading figures of the Whig government that came to power in 1859 – Palmerston, Russell and Gladstone – were indeed supporters of Italian independence: Gladstone found it outrageous that the Austrians, ‘glaringly inferior in refinement’, were arbitrarily ruling ‘a race much more advanced’, while Palmerston, the prime minister, remarked that the Austrians had ‘no business in Italy’ and were ‘a public nuisance there’. Yet they did not think Vienna’s occupation of Lombardy merited a European war, and they were concerned that Cavour seemed interested less in Italian freedom than in the expansion of Piedmont.

Alarmed by international opposition, Napoleon lost his nerve and suggested delaying the campaign for a year. Cavour was enraged, especially with the British, whom he accused of egotism and pettiness. When in March the Powers suggested a conference to discuss the situation, he rushed to Paris, harangued the French and threatened as revenge to ally Piedmont with England. He also declared himself ready to start a wider conflagration, to ‘set Europe alight’ to get his own way. One scheme was to encourage an uprising against the Austrians in Hungary, but the 20,000 rifles he sent the rebels by boat up the Danube arrived after the revolt was over.

International pressure persuaded Victor Emanuel and most of his cabinet to accept disarmament, but the prime minister held out until mid-April when France forced him to back down too. Although Cavour’s dreams seemed to have dissolved, they were revived the following week when the Austrians lost their heads and delivered an ultimatum insisting that Piedmont reduce its army and disband its volunteers. On hearing of this blunder, Cavour was so euphoric that, unmusical though he was, he apparently flung open his study window and sang an aria from Il trovatore. In the eyes of a Europe astonished by the Austrian provocation, he had suddenly become the beleaguered statesman rather than the calculating aggressor. Furthermore, the much-desired war could now be fought against an enemy that had forfeited international sympathy and support.

The Habsburg government made a more honourable blunder by waiting three days for its ultimatum to expire and thus missing the chance to capture Turin before the French army arrived. The outcome of the campaign was decided by two battles in Lombardy in June, which ended in victories for France but in which its Italian allies played undistinguished parts. One of them, Magenta, was so sanguinary that it gave its name to the artists’ colour magenta, but little Piedmontese blood helped inspire the name since the army did not arrive at the battlefield until nightfall, after the struggle was over. At the other, Solferino, the sight of wounded soldiers left to die was so horrifying to one Swiss witness that he went home and founded the International Red Cross.

At Solferino the Piedmontese did take part, fighting on the French flank near the village of San Martino. Yet this second contest was also a victory won by Napoleon’s divisions; the Battle of San Martino was at best a draw between Victor Emanuel’s army and a much smaller Habsburg force. For all their country’s martial traditions, the Piedmontese commanders seemed to have no idea how to fight a battle. An artillery barrage and a concerted infantry assault might have compelled the Austrians to retreat. Yet much of the artillery was stationed too far away to be of use, and the infantry brigades, instead of combining in a massed attack, took it in turns to advance, charging with the bayonet and failing to break through.

The poor Piedmontese performance can be partly attributed to Victor Emanuel who, despite his lack of military experience, insisted on his constitutional right to be commander-in-chief. The king possessed courage and exposed himself to the enemy but he demonstrated no qualities relevant to generalship. Officers at the battle found him confused, indecisive and lacking any understanding of the geography of the battlefield. He galloped across the terrain, pursued by his staff, so that his field commanders could not tell where he was when they needed reinforcements. When one of them suggested he position himself on a height so that he could both see the battle and be seen by his troops, he seemed astonished by the idea.

The Piedmontese could claim success, however, because in the evening the Austrians, after repulsing attacks all day, were obliged to fall back in line with their comrades whom the French had defeated; the villages the Italians had failed to capture in combat were thus occupied as the enemy withdrew, and a mighty victory was soon proclaimed. The battle acquired the status of a sort of Italian Austerlitz and was duly consecrated in textbooks and commemorated on site by a Risorgimento museum and a huge tower with a spiral staircase and frescoes of episodes from the ‘wars of independence’. As in most memorials of the era, Victor Emanuel dominates both the frescoes and the sculptures: one painting depicts him being ushered into the Forum by a Roman legionary, as if he were about to join a pantheon with Caesar and Scipio Africanus. Close by is an ossuary containing on one wall of its nave the names of all Italian soldiers killed in 1859; at the east end their skulls are piled high on shelves above layers of human bones.

A fortnight after the battle, Napoleon suggested a truce and a meeting with his opposite number, the Habsburg Franz Josef. The two emperors met at Villafranca near Verona and, without consulting Victor Emanuel, agreed on the terms of a peace. Austria would retain Venetia; Piedmont would acquire Lombardy except for the fortified towns of Mantua and Peschiera; the Habsburg rulers of Tuscany and Modena would return to the thrones from which they had recently been deposed; and an Italian confederation would be established which would include Austria in its role as a ruler of Italian territory.

After his two victories Napoleon might have carried on the war with the expectation of conquering Venetia. Yet he lacked his uncle’s imperviousness to the sight of casualties and he was sickened by the carnage of Magenta and Solferino. He was also alarmed by signs that Prussia might enter the war on Austria’s side if the conflict continued. A third factor in his decision was disillusionment with his Piedmontese allies. Led to believe that he would be fighting a war of liberation, he was disappointed to find that the Lombards seemed unanxious to be liberated. He was also disgruntled with the military performance of the Piedmontese. After Solferino he had planned to continue eastwards to the four Austrian fortresses known as the Quadrilateral, and he had allotted the task of capturing the north-western one, Peschiera, to his Italian allies. The Piedmontese should have been well equipped for the job because they had recently bought a siege train from Sweden, but unfortunately they had forgotten to bring it with them on campaign. After Napoleon learned of the oversight and was informed the artillery would not arrive for another three weeks, he decided to end the war.

The fiasco over the siege train was not the only error for which Cavour, acting as minister for war as well as prime minister, was partly responsible. Perhaps his most egregious mistake was his failure to prevent his unseasoned and incompetent monarch from commanding the army. Other shortcomings were apparent in his handling of supplies and administration. The Piedmontese did not possess enough horses, and those they did have often went lame because there were not enough horseshoes. The army had neither reserves nor enough uniforms nor even proper maps of Lombardy; its soldiers were shod in boots that baked in the summer heat, making them feel they were wearing wooden clogs. At Plombières Cavour had offered Napoleon an army of 100,000 but in the event he could provide only half that number. The Piedmontese had also boasted that the cause would attract 200,000 volunteers, but only a tenth of that figure turned up – and there were not nearly enough weapons even for them. Those 20,000 rifles sent to the Hungarians would have been more useful at home.

Victor Emanuel accepted the armistice, but Cavour reacted so violently to its terms that observers believed he had become unhinged. He ranted at the king and tried to force him to carry on the war without the French. When Victor Emanuel rejected this lunatic idea, his prime minister resigned and retired to his estate at Leri, where he settled down to study Machiavelli. Regretting the impetuosity of his actions, he was soon plotting a return to power.

While planning the campaign against Austria, Cavour had simultaneously been preparing expansion into central Italy. His project was greatly advanced by a strange day in Florence, 27 April, when a peaceful demonstration of local patriots, supported by some soldiers, led within a few hours to a revolution and the fall of the Habsburg–Lorraine dynasty. Leopold II, the grand duke, had lost some of his popularity in 1849 when an Austrian army brought him back to power and quartered itself in Tuscany for several years at the state’s expense. Yet the grand duchy’s regime remained benign and tolerant enough to annoy the pope, who often rebuked Leopold for being too kind to Jews and Protestants. On the morning of the 27th few of the grand duke’s subjects wanted him overthrown except for some radicals and republicans concentrated in Florence and Livorno. Even moderate patriots, headed by Baron Ricasoli and other liberal aristocrats, were happy to keep him if he was prepared to ally his duchy with Piedmont. At noon on that fateful day, Leopold accepted this condition. Alarmed by the size of the demonstration and the hoisting of the tricolour flag, he even agreed to join the war and appoint a government of liberal conservatives. As these concessions did not assuage the demonstrators, moderate leaders suggested that the grand duke might prevent revolution and save his dynasty by abdicating in favour of his son. We cannot know whether this tactic would have worked because Leopold refused to try it: instead of abdicating, he decided to leave the duchy altogether. After two dynasties and more than three centuries of grand dukes, Tuscans watched the departure of their last sovereign with much bewilderment and some sorrow.

In Tuscany the situation was thus ready to be exploited, but Cavour knew he needed evidence of popular support there and elsewhere in central Italy if his expansionist policy were to be acceptable to the rest of Europe. Lombardy had proved to be an embarrassment: Milan had not been engulfed by the patriotic fervour of 1848, and there had been no ‘Five Days’ of heroism and self-sacrifice on the barricades. The correspondent of the London Times saw no unrest in Lombardy and was unable to see signs of anti-Austrian sentiment even in parts of Piedmont: in Piedmontese country districts he even witnessed people welcoming the Austrian troops, helping them cross a river and reproaching them for not arriving earlier; they abhorred their own government, they explained, because it overloaded them with taxes to maintain an army they did not want and could not afford.

Determined to conjure a better display of patriotism in the central duchies, Cavour ordered Giuseppe La Farina, the secretary of the National Society, to arrange ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations of support for the Italian cause. Although La Farina assured the prime minister that he could do this, the National Society proved incapable of organizing such affairs in the cities of the Po Valley. To the consternation of Cavour and the frustration of Napoleon, who felt he had been duped, patriotic enthusiasm in the summer of 1859 was neither strong nor widespread.

Austria’s defeat at Magenta and the withdrawal of its garrisons from the Papal States had, however, created a revolutionary situation. The rulers of Parma and Modena fled their capitals, and in their duchies, as well as in Tuscany and the Romagna, provisional governments led by local patriots were established. These then organized assemblies of more patriots who rejected the terms of the Franco-Austrian agreement at Villafranca, formally deposed the ducal dynasties and demanded annexation by Piedmont. The crucial figures were Bettino Ricasoli in Florence and Luigi Carlo Farini in Modena, who acquired dictatorial powers in their cities and, at a time when Cavour was sulking on his estate, managed to undermine the armistice and maintain the momentum of the patriotic movement. Well-timed support for them soon came from the Whig government in London, which sanctimoniously rejoiced at ‘the gratifying prospect of a people building up the edifice of their liberties, and consolidating the work of their independence, amid the sympathies and good wishes of Europe’.

Cavour was still so much the dominant politician of Piedmont that in January 1860, despite the reluctance of the king, he was back in office. With his extraordinary talent for improvising and adapting to circumstances, he saw a chance to discard the provisions of both Plombières and Villafranca and by means of plebiscites of annexing central Italy to Piedmont. He disliked Ricasoli, who was haughty and principled and disrespectful of himself, but he realized that his cooperation was essential. With Tuscany, Piedmont would become the kingdom of northern Italy; without it, it would be just a bigger Piedmont.

Ricasoli was a Florentine patriot who had long supported the idea of Italian unification. Yet he wanted a genuine union – what he called ‘fusion’ – rather than mere annexation by Piedmont. Many Tuscans felt, as he did, that they were more Italian and more civilized than the Piedmontese, and they did not want to play a subordinate role in the new entity. Cavour tried to calm these anxieties by promising them autonomy, but Ricasoli remained hesitant about holding a referendum on annexation. A proud and high-minded man, his austerity tempered only by his pleasure in making Chianti wine, he had a fateful decision to make. The choice was between a ‘finis Etruriae’, the ending of a long tradition of independence, or preserving it and risking Tuscany’s reduction to an unimportant statelet, perhaps a sort of Monaco surrounded by a new country that might become one of the great nations of Europe. Ricasoli agonized over the dilemma but he stuck to the national patriotic cause. Yet even after Tuscans had voted by a large majority to accept annexation, he was in a melancholy mood, wondering whether his fellow countrymen might one day curse the union he had brought about. Later he said he found the Piedmontese ‘yoke’ more antipathetic than the Austrian one because the new rulers could not understand how Tuscans wished ‘to be Italian and to feel a new Italian spirit’.

In the spring of 1860 patriotic fervour in northern and central Italy was undoubtedly stronger than it had been the previous summer. In the Tuscan plebiscite only 15,000 people preferred a separate kingdom to annexation by Piedmont, and in Farini’s Emilia – a new region consisting of Modena, Parma and the Romagna – the minority was officially only 756, an impossibly low figure. Further plebiscites were held in Nice and Savoy, which had been promised to Napoleon first at Plombières and later in return for French support for the Italian annexations. Cavour had been forced to pretend that no promise had been made partly because Nice was Garibaldi’s home town and partly because it would have been awkward to explain to Savoyard soldiers, whom he needed for the war, that they would be fighting for the privilege of exchanging their nationality. When the plan became public in March 1860, Garibaldi denounced it, pointing out that ‘in 1388 Nice joined itself to Piedmont on condition that it should never be alienated to any foreign power’. The most famous of all Nizzards also allowed himself to become involved in a daft plot with an English adventurer called Laurence Oliphant. On the day of the plebiscite, the two men decided to sail to Nice with 200 volunteers, smash the ballot boxes in the city and burn the voting papers, after which, according to Oliphant’s unverified and unreliable account, Garibaldi would have declared himself president of an independent Nice. Fortunately for the great man’s reputation, the plan was thwarted by a summons to Sicily and a journey to immortality. Oliphant went by himself to Nice, where he noticed that the polling station he visited was devoid of ‘no’ voting papers. In that city those voting for annexation by France outnumbered those against it by 100 to one, while the ratio in Savoy was more than 500 to one. As in Emilia, only pressure and manipulation could have obtained affirmative majorities of 99 per cent.

Sicily and Ponza (1813)

Capture of the Island of Ponza Feby 26th 1813. From a plan by Capt Mounsey by Thomas Whitcombe [artist]; Thomas Sutherland [engraver], 1813. PAD5833

As the French debacle in Russia unfolded, allegiances became strained and Marshal King Murat apparently openly declared his intention of making peace with the British. Arriving back in his kingdom on 4 February 1813, he immediately dispatched an emissary to the Austrian Emperor, offering his troops in return for a guarantee that he could retain his kingdom as it stood presently, even if Napoleon fell, but nothing concrete came of the proposal.

Lord William Bentinck had previously received a proposal from the Russian Admiral Tchitchagov, commanding the Black Sea fleet and the Russian troops on the Danube, that he could provide 40,000 troops to attack the French possessions in Dalmatia, leading on to an invasion of Italy itself, if supported by 20,000 British/Sicilian troops. Although such a proposal may have sound very attractive to Bentinck, he declined to take up this offer once it became clear that the entire expense of paying and feeding these troops would fall on the British treasury.

Bentinck had so far followed his brief from London to send all available troops to the east coast of Spain over every other priority, despite his own hopes of leading an Italian insurrection. Napoleon had failed in Russia and was on the retreat in central Europe; because of this, the French garrisons in the Mediterranean were being severely denuded to reinforce the severely weakened forces in Germany. Bentinck saw his opportunity and began to champion his Italian dreams once again.

Now, Admiral Greig was in command of the Black Sea fleet and he had 11,000 Russian troops that could be utilised if paid by the British. With these, added to the troops that Bentinck could bring together at Sicily, he could create an army of 30,000 men, all in British pay, ready to be used anywhere in the Mediterranean. As a first move in this direction, on 26 February Bentinck sent a small force under Vice Admiral Pellew to capture the island of Ponza, to be used as a base for naval operations against coastal trade, as a supply base for smuggling British goods and as a way of providing immediate channels of communication with the Italian mainland. The troops landing on the island, whilst the naval guns pounded the small fortress, soon persuaded the governor of the island to capitulate. Some 300 prisoners were taken here, without a single casualty amongst the British troops.

Two days before this action, a convoy of fifty armed vessels with stores destined for Naples was attacked at Pietra Nera on the Calabrian coast. The attacking force, led by Captain Robert Hall, included two divisions of gunboats and four companies of the 75th Foot. The troops were landed on the coast at daylight on 14 February, and they soon took the coastal batteries and all the enemy boats were either carried off or burnt.

As regards the internal affairs of Sicily, things had begun to take on a much brighter appearance, with the quality of the Sicilian army improving, the anti-British party subsiding in influence and the British-style constitution beginning to bed in. But as always, trouble was not far away, usually harboured under the skirts of the queen – and so it proved once again.

Through the queen’s intrigues, the king had begun to take the government back under his own hand and in striving to return to the old ways, he effectively neutralised the new constitution. Bentinck reacted immediately and with great force, declaring that the alliance was to be ended immediately. This sudden threat caused an instant reaction from the king, who – true to form – immediately caved in and went back to his hunting. The harm had been done, however, and tensions grew between the Neapolitan troops stationed in Sicily and the Sicilian civilian population. This, added to renewed preparations by Murat for an invasion of Sicily, was regarded as so serious a situation that it led to Bentinck ordering some troops back from Spain.

By the end of May, however, all seemed to have settled down again, and the queen had, to all appearances, finally conceded defeat and announced her departure from the island. She would sail on 27 May for Constantinople, from where she could travel overland to Vienna. With the intrigues of the queen finally coming to an end, Bentinck felt the position on Sicily was secure enough, and he sailed for Alicante, taking as many troops as he could spare and leaving them at Ponza en route, to threaten the Italian mainland. Leaving General Macfarlane in command at Palermo, he gave him instructions to land 12,000 men on the mainland if an Italian insurrection actually materialised.

Hardly had he sailed than the news reached him that the queen had delayed her voyage because of ill health, although thankfully she did depart on 14 June for Zante. The Sicilian government, however, quickly reverted to type and once again became extremely obstructive and embroiled in petty squabbling.

By mid-July Macfarlane could only report the situation as ‘alarming’, with the new constitution on the verge of collapse. Palermo suffered regular riots and foodstuffs became scarce and expensive, adding to the unrest. Macfarlane was forced to order the return to Sicily of most of the troops sent to Ponza, and thankfully the Neapolitan troops remained loyal. In August Macfarlane felt that the situation was so grave that he wrote to Bentinck requesting his urgent return from Spain, with which he reluctantly concurred.

Sicily had rarely been any less than a severe headache for British commanders, and prospects now looked as bleak once again as they ever had. It seemed that no one would ever be able to get a firm grasp on Sicilian politics, queen or no queen, but abandoning the island to its own fate could never be an option. For all its faults, failings and frustrations, Sicily was too vital to the British cause in the Mediterranean. Perhaps that was always the problem: the Sicilians could also see that they were vital to Britain and therefore knew that they could continue their intrigues with impunity.

Italian Empire in Africa

Mussolini, for whom the French surrender was a heaven-sent opportunity to implement his long-term plans for a vast Italian empire in Africa. In 1940 he asked the Germans for Corsica, Tunisia, Djibuti and naval bases at Toulon, Ajaccio and Mers-el-Kebir on the Algerian coast, and he was planning to invade the Sudan and British Somaliland. Mussolini’s flights of fancy extended to the annexation of Kenya, Egypt and even, in their giddier moments, Nigeria and Liberia.8 Hitler’s response was frosty, for at that time his Foreign Ministry was preparing a blueprint ‘to rationalise colonial development for the benefit of Europe’. An enlarged Italian empire was not part of this plan.

Fascism had always been about conquest. As a young misfit spitefully living on the margins of society, Mussolini had convinced himself that ‘only blood could turn the bloodstained wheels of history’. This remained his creed: violence was a valid and desirable means for a government to gets its own way at home and abroad. ‘I don’t give a damn!’ was the slogan of Mussolini’s Blackshirt hoodlums, and he applauded it as ‘evidence of a fighting spirit which accepts all the risks’. Violence was essential for Italy to attain both its rightful place in the world and the territorial empire that would uphold its pretensions. Yet Mussolini’s projected empire was not just about accumulating power: he promised that it would, like its Roman predecessor, bring enlightenment to its subjects. Italians were fitted for this noble task for, as the Duce insisted, ‘It is our spirit that has put our civilisation on the by-ways of the world.’

Cinema informed the masses of the ideals and achievements of the new Rome. A propaganda short of 1937 entitled Scipione l’Africano blended past and present glories. There was footage of Mussolini’s recent visit to Libya, where he is seen watching a spectacular enactment of Scipio’s victory over Carthage with elephants and Italian soldiers dressed as Roman legionaries. It was followed by scenes of a mock Roman triumph alternated with shots of the new Caesar, Mussolini, inspecting his troops. There are also images of babies and mothers surrounded by children as a reminder of the Duce’s campaign to raise the birth rate, which would, among other things, provide a million colonists for an enlarged African empire.

Fascism’s civilising mission was graphically portrayed in the opening sequence of the 1935 propaganda film Ti Saluto, Vado in Abissinia, produced by the Fascist Colonial Institute. Against a soundtrack of discordant music there is grisly footage of shackled slaves, a baby crying as its cheeks are scored with tribal marks, a leper, dancing women, an Abyssinian ras (prince) in his exotic regalia, the Emperor Haile Selassie on horseback inspecting modern infantrymen and, to please male cinemagoers, close-ups of naked girls dancing. Darkness and grotesque images give way to light with the first bars of the jaunty popular song of the film’s title, and there follows a sequence of young, cheerful soldiers in tropical kit boarding a troopship on the first stage of their journey to claim this benighted land for civilisation. Newsreels celebrated the triumphs of ‘progress’: one showed a Somali village ‘where the machinery imported by our farmers helps the natives to till the fertile soil’, and in another King Victor Emmanuel inspects hospitals and waterworks in Libya. In the press, Fascist hacks flattered Italy as ‘the mother of civilisation’ and ‘the most intelligent of nations’.

Progress required Fascist order. Within a year of Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922, operations began to secure Libya completely, in particular the south-western desert region of Fezzan. Progress was slow, despite aircraft, armoured cars and tanks, and so in 1927 Italy, like Spain, reached for phosgene and mustard gas. Under Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Italian forces pressed inland across the Sahara, herded rebels and their families into internment camps and hanged captured insurgents. The fighting dragged on for a further four years, and ended with the capture, trial and public execution in 1931 of the capable and daring partisan leader, Omar el-Mukhtar. Like Abd el-Krim, he became a hero to later generations of North African nationalists: there are streets named after him in Cairo and Gaza.

Somalia too got a stiff dose of Fascist discipline. Indirect rule was abandoned, and the client chiefs who had effectively controlled a third of the colony were brought to heel by a war waged between 1923 and 1927. The bill swelled Somalia’s debts, which were slightly reduced by a programme of investment in irrigation and cash crops, all of which were subsidised by Rome. Italians were compelled to buy Somalian bananas, but their consumption merely staved off insolvency. The flow of immigrants was disappointingly small: in 1940 there were 854 Italian families tilling the Libyan soil and 1,500 settlers in Somalia.

Having tightened Italy’s grip over Libya and Somalia, Mussolini turned to what was, for all patriots, the unfinished business of Abyssinia, where an Italian army had suffered an infamous defeat at Adwa in 1896. Fascism would restore national honour and add a potentially rich colony to the new Roman Empire, which would soon be filled by settlers.

Known as Ethiopia by its Emperor and his subjects, Abyssinia was one of the largest states in Africa, covering 472,000 square miles, and it had been independent for over a thousand years. It was ruled by Haile Selassie, ‘Lion of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia’, a benevolent absolutist who traced his descent to Solomon and Sheba. His autocracy had the spiritual support of the Coptic Church, which preached the virtues of submission to the Emperor and the aristocracy. One nobleman, Ras Gugsa Wale, summed up the political philosophy of his caste: ‘It is best for Ethiopia to live according to ancient custom as of old and it would not profit her to follow European civilisation.’

Nevertheless, that civilisation was encroaching on Abyssinia and would continue to do so. In 1917 the railway between French Djibuti and Addis Ababa had been opened; among other goods transported were consignments of modern weaponry for Haile Selassie’s army and embryonic air force (it had four planes in 1935), and European businessmen in search of concessions. The Emperor was a hesitantly progressive ruler who hoped to achieve a balance between tradition and what he called ‘acts of civilisation’.

Frontier disputes provided Mussolini with the pretext for a war, but he had first to overcome the hurdle of outside intervention orchestrated by the League of Nations. Abyssinia was a member of that body which, in theory, existed to prevent wars through arbitration and, again in theory, had the authority to call on members to impose sanctions on aggressors. The League was a paper tiger: it had failed to stop the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931, and economic sanctions against Italy required the active cooperation of the British and French navies. This was not forthcoming, for neither power had the will for a blockade that could escalate into a war against Italy whose army, navy and air force were grossly overestimated by the British and French intelligence services. Moreover, both powers were becoming increasingly uneasy about Hitler’s territorial ambitions and hoped, vainly as it turned out, to enlist the goodwill of Mussolini. An Anglo-French attempt to appease Mussolini by offering him a chunk of Abyssinia (the Hoare-Laval Pact) failed either to deter him or win his favour. Interestingly, this resort to the cynical diplomacy of Africa’s early partition provoked outrage in Britain and France.

Neither nation was prepared to strangle Italy’s seaborne trade to preserve Abyssinian integrity, and so Mussolini’s gamble paid off. The fighting began in October 1935, with 100,000 Italian troops backed by tanks and bombers invading from Eritrea in the north and Somalia in the south. Ranged against them was the small professional Abyssinian army armed with machine-guns and artillery and far larger tribal levies raised by the rases and equipped with all kinds of weapons, from spears and swords to modern rifles.

The course of the war has been admirably charted by Anthony Mockler, who reminds us that, despite the disparity between the equipment of the two armies, the conquest of Abyssinia was never the walkover the Italians had hoped for. In December a column backed by ten tanks was ambushed in the Takazze valley. One, sent on a reconnaissance, was captured by a warrior who stole up behind the vehicle, jumped on it and knocked on the turret. It was opened and he killed the crew with his sword. Surrounded, the Italians attempted to rally around their tanks and were overrun. Another tank crew were slain after they had opened their turret; others were overturned and set alight, and two were captured. Nearly all their crews were killed in the rout that followed and fifty machine-guns captured. The local commander, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, was shaken by this reverse and struck back with, aircraft which attacked the Abyssinians with mustard-gas bombs.

As in Morocco, gas (as well as conventional bombs) compensated for slipshod command and panicky troops, although the Italians excused its use as revenge for the beheading in Daggahur of a captured Italian pilot after he had just bombed and strafed the town. Denials rather than excuses were offered when bombs were dropped on hospitals marked with red crosses.

Intensive aerial bombardment and gas swung the war in Italy’s favour. In May 1936 Addis Ababa was captured and, soon after, Haile Selassie went into exile. He was jeered by Italian delegates when he addressed the League of Nations in Geneva, and was cheered by Londoners when he arrived at Waterloo. He remained in England for the next four years, sometimes in Bath, where his kindness and charm were long remembered. In Rome an image of the Lion of Judah was placed on the war memorial to the dead of the 1896 war; Adwa had been avenged. Mussolini’s bombast rose to the occasion with declarations that Abyssinia had been ‘liberated’ from its age-old backwardness and miseries. Liberty took odd forms, for the Duce decreed that henceforward it was a crime for Italians to cohabit with native women, which he thought an affront to Italian manhood, and he forbade Italians to be employed by Abyssinians.

In Abyssinia Italians assumed the role of master race with a hideous relish. Efforts were made to exterminate the Abyssinian intellectual elite, including all primary school teachers. In February 1937 an attempt to assassinate the Viceroy Graziani prompted an official pogrom in which Abyssinians were randomly murdered in the streets. Blackshirts armed with daggers and shouting, ‘Duce! Duce!’ led the way. The killings spread to the countryside after Graziani ordered the Governor of Harar to ‘Shoot all – I say all – rebels, notables, chiefs’ and anyone ‘thought guilty of bad faith or of being guilty of helping the rebels’. Thousands were slaughtered during the next three months.

The subjugation of Abyssinia proved as difficult as its conquest. Over 200,000 troops were deployed fighting a guerrilla war of pacification. Italy’s new colony was turning into an expensive luxury: between 1936 and 1938 its military expenses totalled 26,500 million lire. In the event of a European war, this huge army would deter an Anglo – French invasion and, as Mussolini hoped, invade the Sudan, Djibuti and perhaps Kenya, while forces based in Libya attacked Egypt. Viceroy Graziani felt certain that Britain was secretly helping Abyssinian resistance and Mussolini agreed, although he wondered whether the Comintern might also have been involved.

By 1938, his own secret service was disseminating anti-British propaganda to Egypt and Palestine via Radio Bari. In April 1939, alarmed by the flow of reinforcements to Italian garrisons in Libya and Abyssinia, the British made secret preparations for undercover operations to foment native uprisings in both colonies. At the same time, parties of young Italians, ostensibly on cycling holidays, spread the Fascist message in Tunisia and Morocco, and Jewish pupils were banned from Italian schools in Tunis, Rabat and Tangier. Africa was already becoming embroiled in Europe’s political conflicts.

Outside Germany and Italy, European opinion about the Abyssinian War was sharply divided: anti-Fascists of all kinds were against Mussolini, while right-wingers tended to support him on racial grounds. Sir Oswald Mosley, whose British Union of Fascists was secretly underwritten by Mussolini, dismissed Abyssinia as a ‘black and barbarous conglomeration of tribes with not one Christian principle’. Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, urged his readers to back Italy and ‘the cause of the white race’ whose defeat in Abyssinia would set a frightening example to Africans and Asians. Evelyn Waugh, who was commissioned by Rothermere to cover the war, confided to a friend his hopes that the Abyssinians would be ‘gassed to buggery’.

Such reactions, and the moral insouciance of Britain and France, shocked educated Africans in West Africa. The Abyssinian episode had tarnished the notion of benevolent imperialism cherished in both nations, and seemed to condone views of Africans as a primitive people, beyond the pale of humanity as well as civilisation. In the words of William Du Bois, an American black academic and champion of black rights, the Abyssinian War had shattered the black man’s ‘faith in white justice’. Harlem blacks had volunteered to fight, but had been refused visas by the American government. Du Bois believed that their instincts had been right, for in the future, ‘The only path to freedom and equality is force, and force to the uttermost.’

The Blitzkrieg of 1494

The Itinerary of Charles VIII in Italy, 1494-1495

One of the most technologically forward-looking military expeditions in history was launched for the most retrograde of reasons. Fourteen ninety-four was a time of momentous change. Less than half a century had passed since the first printed book had appeared. The Moors and Jews had been expelled from Spain just two years before. Only a year before, an Italian sailor in Spanish employ named Columbus had returned from an overseas voyage claiming to have discovered a New World. Yet none of these events loomed as large at the time as the loss of Constantinople forty-one years earlier to the Turks. Byzantium, the bastion of Christianity in the East, had fallen to the Mohammedans! Any self-respecting Christian monarch felt a duty to take up arms. King Charles VIII of France had the means to act and the inclination to do so.

His kingdom had been greatly enlarged and substantially strengthened over the past half century. The English had been kicked out of Normandy and Guienne in 1453 at the end of the Hundred Years’ War. In subsequent decades, Armagnac, Burgundy, Provence, Anjou, and Brittany had been wrested from their feudal rulers and added to the crown domains. With France almost at its modern boundaries, Charles VIII presided over the most powerful nation in Europe at a time when the very concept of a “state” was just taking shape.

With his small stature, skinny body, large head, and massive nose, the twenty-four-year-old king hardly looked the part of a mighty monarch. His hands twitched nervously and he stuttered when he spoke. “In body as in mind,” wrote a contemporary chronicler, “he is of no great value.” He had so little education that he was unable to speak Latin, the language of civilized discourse, and he was able to sign his own name only with great difficulty. But he loved tales of chivalrous derring-do like Thomas Malory’s evocation of the Camelot legend, Le Morte d’Arthur, published in 1485. Charles longed to be another El Cid, Roland, or Charlemagne—a great hero who would smite the infidels and reclaim the Holy Land. He wanted to go on a Crusade.

The opportunity to act out his anachronistic dream presented itself early in 1494 when the king of Naples died. Charles VIII felt he had a dynastic claim to the throne and he decided to make good on it in order to seize an operating base for use against the Ottoman Empire. Italy was then at the height of the Renaissance. Riches from agriculture, manufacture, and trade—Italy was Europe’s gateway, via the Mediterranean, to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—created a class of wealthy businessmen and nobles who financed an outpouring of art the likes of which the world had never seen before or since. Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian: All were alive in the 1490s. They benefited from a loosening of religious restrictions that was savagely denounced by moralists such as the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola, who complained that Pope Alexander VI (one of the Borgia popes) was guilty of incest, murder, and corruption. Wallowing in decadent luxury, Italy let its defenses molder. This problem was compounded by the peninsula’s lack of unity. It was split into small states poised in carefully balanced equilibrium. The most powerful were the Papal States, the Republic of Venice, the Duchy of Milan, the Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Florence. In all of them, leading families such as the Borgias, Medicis, and Sforzas schemed for power and position with a bag of gold ducats in one hand and a dagger in the other. Seeking an ally against his rivals, the Duke of Milan invited Charles VIII into Italy, and the French king eagerly seized the opportunity.

In the fall of 1494, Charles led some 27,000 men across the Alps, bringing with him a new way of war. Since most Italians disdained military service, they had turned over the protection of their city-states to mercenary captains, the condottieri (contractors), whose paid followers, many of them foreigners, were grouped into compagnie (companies). They had some primitive cannons and arquebuses—a handheld firearm ignited with a burning match—but mostly they were mounted men-at-arms. Lacking much loyalty to their paymasters, and always acutely conscious that today’s enemies could be tomorrow’s employers, the condottieri evolved a style of warfare that was highly stylized and strikingly ineffectual. Machiavelli told the story, perhaps apocryphal, of a four-hour battle between two mercenary armies that resulted in only one man dying—and that happened when he fell off his horse and suffocated in the mud.

Charles VIII’s forces fought with a brutality and determination altogether alien to Italy. Most of his soldiers were French, and they were part of one of the first national armies in Europe since the days of the Roman legions. Slightly fewer than half were traditional cavalrymen carrying lances and swords and protected by bulky suits of plate armor. The rest were a combination of French crossbowmen and archers along with Swiss pikemen, then the most feared mercenaries on the continent. The Swiss had revived Alexander the Great’s phalanx, and with their eighteen-foot pikes arrayed in a hedgehog formation they had repeatedly bested the knights on horseback who had ruled European battlefields for a millennium. But it was not the Swiss pikemen or the French bowmen that made Charles’s army so formidable. It was his artillery.

Cannons had been introduced into Europe more than a century before, probably from China. They had already played a notable role in piercing castle walls, but early artillery had not been terribly effective. It consisted of giant bombards woven out of iron hoops, often so big and unwieldy that it had to be assembled at the siege site and could barely be moved. At first the ammunition consisted of arrowlike projectiles, then stone balls that tended to shatter on impact. Loading one of these contraptions was so difficult that firing three rounds in a single day was considered quite a feat.

France led the way in the development of better artillery in the 1400s. Royal cannon makers, borrowing from techniques used to cast church bells, began to make lighter and more mobile guns out of molded bronze. On the sides, around the center of gravity, they added small handles known as trunnions that allowed the guns to be mounted on two-wheeled wooden carriages. Thus deployed, cannons could be traversed right or left, up or down, with relative ease. They could also be transported from spot to spot more quickly because French gun carriages were hitched to swift horses, not to the plodding oxen used for artillery in Italy.

Along with these better cannons came better propellant and ammunition. Gunpowder, a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal that had first been introduced to Europe in the thirteenth century, became more concentrated and reliable in the fifteenth century through a process of “corning,” in which flakes were first mixed with a little liquid and then dried and cut up. The extra explosive force of corned powder was used to spit out solid iron cannonballs that traveled farther and hit harder than the stone shot of old. By the 1490s, smoothbore, muzzle-loading artillery had essentially reached the shape it would assume for the next 350 years—but only in a few parts of Europe. The Italians were still relying on antiquated siege pieces and outdated castles. They were not prepared to face an army with such advanced weaponry and such ferocity in using it.

The Neapolitans first got a taste of what was in store for them in October 1494 when they sent an army north to launch a preemptive attack on the French invaders who were massing around Milan. The Neapolitans were occupying the castle at Mordano when they came into contact with Charles VIII’s legions. They might have expected to hold out for weeks, months, even years, but they had not reckoned with the power of Charles’s three-dozen-odd guns, which breached the fortress walls (or possibly its gate) in three hours. The Frenchmen rushed inside and slaughtered all the occupants. Then they moved into Tuscany, capturing a series of frontier fortresses with shocking ease. Piero de Medici, ruler of Florence, was so terrified that he gave up power and allowed Charles VIII to enter his city uncontested. The French then walked into Rome before proceeding on to the largest Italian state, the Kingdom of Naples. Their way was barred by the fortress at Monte San Giovanni, which had once withstood a siege of seven years’ duration. Charles’s cannons breached its walls within eight hours, allowing his troops to slay everyone inside. More than seven hundred Neapolitans died, including women and children, compared to only ten Frenchmen. A contemporary marveled at the impact of French cannon: “They were planted against the walls of a town with such speed, the space between each shot was so little, and the balls flew so quickly, and were impelled with such force, that as much execution was done in a few hours, as formerly, in Italy, in the like number of days.”

King Alfonso II of Naples, knowing he could not withstand this onslaught, abdicated his throne. On February 22, 1495, Charles entered Naples—then one of the biggest cities in Europe, with a population of about 150,000—beneath a canopy of gold cloth borne by four Neapolitan noblemen.

Within less than six months, Charles had marched the length and breadth of Italy, brushing aside resistance wherever he went. The speed and power of his artillery, the discipline of his troops, and the savagery with which they were employed—all left the Italians awestruck. Their days of sheltering behind old-fashioned castle walls had ended in a crash of shattered masonry. Contemporaries saw 1494 as a momentous year, much as subsequent generations were to regard 1789, 1914, or 1939.

Not even the setbacks subsequently suffered by li franzisi (the French) could dispel the lasting impression they had made. The French army was chased out of Italy in the summer of 1495 by a coalition of Italian states buttressed by the might (and military technology) of newly unified Spain. Charles never got a chance to fight for the Holy Land. Within three years, he was dead—killed, stupidly enough, when he cracked his outsize cranium against a low doorjamb in one of his palaces.

But Charles’s invasion had left a lasting legacy—and not only by spreading all over Italy the malady that would become known as syphilis (the French called it “the Italian disease” or “the Neapolitan disease,” while to the Italians it was “the French disease”). The French incursion triggered a sixty-year contest for hegemony in Italy pitting France against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, the House of Valois against the House of Habsburg. The Habsburgs eventually prevailed in the first major coalition war in modern European history, thanks to the efficient Spanish army organized in massive formations of musketeers and pikemen known as tercios. The French suffered for not having adopted handheld firearms as readily as they did cannons.

The events of 1494–95 may not have made France a long-term winner, but they definitely left Italy a long-term loser. City-states could flourish in the days of edged weapons but not in the Gunpowder Age. Having failed to develop polities big enough, complex enough, and rich enough to deploy advanced gunpowder armies, the Italians lost control of their own destiny and would not become a unified nation for almost four centuries. In the meantime, their countryside was ravaged by foreign armies, their cities sacked by drunken soldiers. (Italians’ persistent, if perhaps unfair, reputation for being poor soldiers—so at odds with the glory of the Roman legions—dates back to these dark days.) Within a few years, Italians like Niccolò Machiavelli were speaking nostalgically about the pre-1494 world as a lost golden age.

Writing in the 1520s, Francesco Guicciardini, a Florentine politician and historian who was a friend of Machiavelli’s, recalled how ineffectual combat had been before the French came: “When war broke out, the sides were so evenly balanced, the military methods so slow and the artillery so primitive, that the capture of a castle took up almost a whole campaign. Wars lasted a very long time, and battles ended with very few or no deaths.”

All that changed with the arrival of Charles VIII. “The French came upon all this like a sudden tempest which turns everything upside down….” Guicciardini continued. “Wars became sudden and violent, conquering and capturing a state in less time than it used to take to occupy a village; cities were reduced with great speed, in a matter of days and hours rather than months; battles became savage and bloody in the extreme. In fact states now began to be saved or ruined, lost and captured, not according to the plans made in a study as formerly but by feat of arms in the field.”

The British Battleaxe Offensive – Hill 208

The next day passed in the uncertainty of waiting. More and more tanks were made serviceable. Kümmel tried repeatedly to free up a few hours for the individual platoons to go swimming. On one occasion they had just entered the water when General Rommel came driving up in his “Mammoth.” Kümmel was about to report, but Rommel gestured for him to stand easy.

“Are your men well on their way, Kümmel?” he asked.

“They are in top form, Herr General,” answered the Hauptmann.

“That’s good. Very well, carry on lads!”

The general drove away and his vehicle disappeared beyond the dunes in the direction of the regiment command post. In the next days Kümmel saw Rommel, or the “Desert Fox” as they called him, repeatedly. He was with the divisions south of Tobruk and he came to them in the area south of Bardia. He drove up to the Halfaya Pass and also inspected the positions between Sidi Azeiz and Capuzzo.

Once Hauptmann Kümmel drove reconnaissance and reached Hill 208, approximately eight kilometers west-southwest of Capuzzo. He saw Italian combat engineers fortifying the positions there. Then he came to the heavy flak battery which was set up in a reverse-slope position. An Oberleutnant came over to him.

“Ziemer!” he said.

“Kümmel,” replied the Hauptmann. They shook hands. “Good field of fire for the battery if the Tommies come up from the southeast.” He pointed from the top of the barely 600-meter-long and roughly 400-meter-wide hilltop to the southeast, where the coast stretched into the distance.

Hans Kümmel looked at the position. The four “eighty-eights” were so well camouflaged that they had virtually disappeared into the sand. Only their barrels projected beyond the sandbagged emplacements.

“It’s just that I don’t believe the enemy will attack right here,” declared Ziemer. “They will either attack along the road through the Halfaya Pass, or they will make a wide sweep through the desert around Sidi Omar. Anything else would be rubbish.”

“Yes, well one never knows that beforehand. Anyway, as a tank man this piece of desert would tempt me. For if you got pass Hafid Ridge here, you would be in Capuzzo and Sidi Azeiz in no time at all.” The two officers were joined by Oberleutnant Paulewicz, commander of the 1st Oasis Company, which was in command on this small hilltop.

“If Tommy is stopped here,” he said, “then his entire offensive is down the drain.”

“Well then, Paulewicz, just make sure that they don’t get through.”

“If the panzers help us we will do it,” declared the Oberleutnant confidently.

Through his binoculars Kümmel observed the dust clouds in the desert.

“Something going on there, Bock,” he said to his adjutant, who had accompanied Kümmel and meanwhile had driven the car forward to the southeast face of Hafid Ridge.

“Yes, it looks like a whole mahalla!” nodded the Oberleutnant. “What are they doing? Have they received replacements for the tanks they lost?”

“We haven’t heard anything about a convoy. But it is hard to say. Perhaps they have received a lot of new tanks without our knowledge.”

What Hauptmann Kümmel and his superiors did not know yet was that a British convoy had got through to Africa. Following the defeat of General Wavell in Cyrenaica, British prime minister Winston Churchill had done everything he could to restore the fighting power of the 8th Army. He knew that the 15th Panzer Divisions 8th Panzer Regiment had been transported to Africa, raising the Africa Corps’s strength in the theater to two complete panzer divisions.

In the famous conference of 21 April 1941 Churchill forced the Admiralty to send the next convoy through the Strait of Gibraltar instead of around the Cape of Good Hope. This would provide a faster resupply than the Germans would be able to achieve. The convoy was dubbed “Tiger.”

“Operation Tiger” was supposed to deliver 295 tanks and 50 fighter aircraft to Africa. The Admiralty required five large cargo vessels to transport these quantities of equipment. The naval forces under Admiral Somerville were to guard the vital convoy. If it got through, the British 8th Army would have enough tanks to carry out its summer campaign, codenamed “Battleaxe.”

The “Battleaxe” plan called for the armored forces of the 8th Army to attack in three groups. The following units were available for the operation:

The 4th Indian Division with one brigade of its own and the 22nd Guards Brigade. As well the 7th Armoured Division with a brigade of Matilda tanks and one of Cruiser tanks.

Attacking on the right flank would be a brigade of the 4th Indian Division with its own Matilda infantry tanks. It was to capture Halfaya Pass and clear the entire strip of coastline.

In the central sector was the 22nd Guards Brigade with the rest of the Matildas, the 4th Armoured Brigade. Its mission was to take Capuzzo and Solium.

The 7th Armoured Brigade was ordered to advance on the left flank straight towards Hill 208 (Hafid Ridge) to take possession of this commanding high ground, and then advance toward Sidi Azeiz, linking up with the fortress garrison and closing the ring around the trapped German units.

According to General Wavell, who had assumed command in Egypt: “In the second phase of the battle we will move up the freed-up Matilda tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade as support for the 7th Armoured Brigade, for it is to be expected that the Germans will give battle with their two panzer divisions. If we succeed in relieving Tobruk and breaking the German siege, then we will be able to advance in the direction of Derna and Mechili in the third phase of the battle, unhinge the German positions and achieve ultimate victory in North Africa.’

Such were the British hopes for “Operation Battleaxe.” Air Vice Marshal Tedder had amassed 105 bombers and 98 fighters to sup- port the ground offensive, but the decisive factor was the almost 300 tanks that had arrived on the “Tiger” convoy.

The importance of this convoy is reflected in a telegram from Winston Churchill to General Wavell, in which he said: “Should ‘Tiger’ reach you, the moment has come to dare and to act. I have ordered the Hurricanes on Malta placed under your command as soon as ‘Tiger’ successfully reaches its berths. These Huns are far less dangerous when they have lost the initiative. All of our best wishes go with you.”

Crusader 7th Armoured Brigade

“Operation Tiger” succeeded, even though one of the ships (the Empire Song) hit a mine and went down with its cargo of 57 tanks and 10 aircraft. Approximately 240 tanks reached the front. This number included 135 Matilda IIs and 82 new Crusader I tanks. Already on 28 May General Wavell wired London that the tanks had been assembled and their guns aligned and that with them he would be in a position to drive back the Africa Korps, relieve Tobruk and achieve total victory.

On the afternoon of this first day of the battle the British tanks attacked the Hafid Ridge for the third time. Hill 208 simply had to fall, if it was not to remain a thorn in the side of the British.

“Let them come to within 800 meters!” ordered Oberleutnant Ziemer.

Gefreiter Huebner, gunner in the crew of gun “Anton” of 3rd Battery, I Battalion, 33rd Flak Regiment, aimed at the first tank to appear from out of the dust. He made a slight correction. It was almost a repeat of the situation they had encountered twice that morning when the mass of British tanks had headed for Hill 208. Then he pressed the firing button.

With a sharp crack the shell left the long barrel and scarcely a second later the 88-mm round smashed through the armor of a Crusader I. Flames, smoke, fleeing figures, all jumbled together in a haze of smoke.

The sun’s heat caused the sand dust to glimmer. An armor-piercing shell struck the wall of sandbags around “Anton” The men were showered with dirt. The ammunition carriers gasped for breath. All four guns were firing now. A Crusader I approached at high speed. It dodged to the side. Gun commander Unteroffizier Heintze had just ordered Huebner to target this tank. The British tank halted in preparation for firing. But the Gefreiter already had it in his sights.

The enemy tank was hit square in the front and was left immobile and smoking. From that point on other Crusader I tanks concentrated their fire on the German gun positions. The defenders had counted 85 tanks. But then German tanks arrived and joined the battle. They were tanks of the 5th Panzer Regiment under the command of Oberst Olbricht. The enemy tanks turned and fled. Hill 208 was saved.

The first day of “Operation Battleaxe” was over. The enemy had achieved a success, as the British 7th Armoured Division had advanced past Capuzzo and Musaid and had almost reached the assembly areas of the 15th Panzer Division. The British were thus just short of Bardia. Advancing past the southwest decline of the Halfaya Plateau, the enemy tanks reached Upper Solium and overran the light German forces stationed there. But the big objective, a breakthrough with all forces, had not been achieved.

At least 28 of the new British tanks brought in by the “Tiger” convoy, lay shattered in front of Hill 208. The burnt-out hulks of another eleven lay in front of the Halfaya Pass and on the pass road, while ten British tanks had met their end north of Capuzzo.

OPERATION BATTLEAXE (14th – 17th June 1941)

On 12th May 1941 a convoy codenamed “Tiger” arrived in Alexandria, bringing 135 Matildas, 82 of the new Crusader tanks (armed with 2-pdr guns) and 21 light tanks. Alas when SS Empire Song sunk after hitting a mine another 57 tanks had gone down with her. This was a total of 238 new tanks for the desert war. Wavell informed his staff and the High Command that due to difficulties in rebuilding 7th Armoured Division meant that the earliest date for moving forward from Mersa Matruh would be 7th June 1941. This all the Crusaders and the Light tanks were destined for 7th Armoured Brigade with the Crusaders being used to equip 6th RTR, while 2nd RTR was equipped with A9’s, A10’s and some A13’s. The 4th Armoured Brigade (4th and 7th RTR) was given the Matildas, so they could support the 4th Indian Division, recently returned from its triumphs against the Italians in East Africa. The Support Group consisted of 1st KRRC and 2nd Rifle Brigade, who were the Division’s Motorised Infantry supporting the tanks, and 1st, 3rd, 4th and 106th RHA, as the Division’s Artillery. At this time 3 RHA only consisted of ‘D’ Battery as ‘J’ and ‘M’ Batteries were part of the Tobruk Garrison. Alas both the Armoured Brigades lacked a third regiment and the regiments in each were not at full strength either. Additionally, having been without tanks for so long many of the crews still needed training. However, with this new equipment General Wavell planned his next offensive, “Operation Battleaxe”. His aim was to destroy the Germans and a decisive victory on North Africa, if nothing else the action may relieve Tobruk.

The plan was to attack and retake the old border posts Sollum, Fort Capuzzo and the Halfaya Pass in the first attack, using the 4th Indian Division, with 4th Armoured Brigade in close support. Once the enemy line had been breached, 7th Armoured Division would then join 4th Armoured Brigade and break through to Tobruk. Once Tobruk had been relieved the garrison and 7th Armoured Division would push on to secure a line between Derna and Mechili. The German/Italian strength was estimated to be 13,000 men and 100 tanks near the wire and a further 25,000 men and 200 tanks around Tobruk. The German Afrika Korps had the advantage in anti-tank guns with a dozen 88mm used in an anti-tank role, which could knock out even the heavily armoured Matildas at nearly 2,000 yards. In total they had 143 anti-tank guns of which 54 were the long barrelled 50mm Pak 38, which had a better performance than the British 2-pdr at 1,000 yards. The British relied upon the field artillery with its 25-pdr guns to knock out the German and Italian anti-tank guns before they could do too much damage to the advancing tanks. Therefore, part of the plan was to defeat the frontier forces before reinforcements could arrive, from Tobruk 80 miles away.

The attack started on the night of 14th-15th June, with the British advancing in three columns, with the British having some 300 tanks to the Germans 200, of which only about 100 were Panzer III & IV’s armed with guns. However, Rommel had prepared well and had placed almost all his anti-tank guns, including the 88’s near the front line. As dawn broke the right-hand column approached Halfaya Pass, over the top of the escarpment, but things started to go seriously wrong. ‘C’ Squadron, 4th RTR, supporting 2nd Cameron Highlanders came up against 88mm’s entrenched in stone sangers, with only their muzzles visible. By 10:00 hrs ‘C’ Squadron was reduced to one Matilda and one Light tank, having been “torn apart by the 88mm’s and the Camerons were forced to withdraw by infantry counter attacks, suffering great casualties in the process. The other two squadrons of 4th RTR along with 7th RTR supported 22nd Guards Brigade in their assaults on Sollum and Fort Capuzzo. The heavily defended Point 206 was bypassed, but by midday the centre column, led by 7th RTR, had captured Fort Capuzzo, with the loss of 5 tanks. Later counter attacks increased 7th RTR’s tank losses by another nine. By the end of the 15th out of the 100 Matildas that had started the battle only 37 were operational, but by morning hard work by the fitters had increased this number by another 11. This engagement became known as the Battle of Halfaya Pass, which became known as “Hellfire Pass”, by the British.

Meanwhile, the main force of 7th Armoured Division was preparing to hook round the German southern flank, led by 7th Armoured Brigade, equipped with the new Crusaders. To keep the Crusaders a surprise, the column was led by A9 and A10 Cruiser tanks from 2nd RTR. The first objective was Hafid Ridge, which was in fact three ridges. So on 15th June 2nd RTR attacked supported by an RHA Battery, but had to eventually withdraw from a isolated position having encounter a deep defensive line of enemy guns. On 2nd RTR’s left flank 6th RTR now attacked Hafid Ridge with their 52 Crusader tanks, while infantry attacks were made on Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo. There was a report that the Germans were withdrawing so 6th RTR’s ‘B’ Squadron advanced over the first ridge, only to encountered a line of guns concealed behind dummy trucks, with only 2 tanks escaping the slaughter. The Germans counter attacked and this was met by ‘C’ Squadron 6th RTR which had orders to hold this force at all cost. The battle became long range duel, with the British 2-pdrs hopelessly outclassed by the German 50mm and 75mm guns and by nightfall only 15 tanks were left. By 20:20 this was back up to 20 serviceable tanks and by dawn on 16th June 6th RTR consisted of RHQ with 3 tanks, ‘A’ Squadron with 7 and ‘C’ Squadron with 11 tanks. 2nd RTR ended the day with just nineteen serviceable tanks.

The advance of 2nd and 6th RTR had only managed to secure the first of the Hafid ridges and German tanks and anti-tank guns were hurrying from Tobruk. The Crusader tanks of 6th RTR were engaged by Panzer III and IV’s, with 17 being knocked out or simply breaking down. By the end of the first day 7th Armoured’s tank strength was down to half, while most of the German forces were still intact and receiving the reinforcements from Tobruk.

On the second day of “Battleaxe” (16th June) the 7th Armoured Division advanced for another assault on Hafid Ridge, with the help of the Matilda tanks of 4th Armoured Brigade, having been recalled from supporting 4th Indian Division. The attack was to be supported by artillery, while the Support Group and 7th Armoured Brigade stood by to either reinforce the attack or fend of any attempt to outflank the 4th Armoured Brigade. Unfortunately, Rommel struck first and while the German 15th Panzer Division counter attacked at Fort Capuzzo, the German 5th Light Division made a hook around the British flank in a effort to reach Halfaya Pass and cut off 7th Armoured Division and 4th Indian Division from supply or escape back down the escarpment.

The German counter offensive forced the 4th Armoured Brigade to stay with 4th Indian Division and the attack on Hafid ridge was called off. The two German columns with some 80 tanks attacked in parallel and were met by a barrage of 25-pdr fire and anti-tank guns and the Matildas of 4th Armoured Brigade in hull-down positions. The British gunner and tank crews fought a very successful defensive battle and when the Germans withdraw they had lost about 50 tanks. While 4th Armoured Brigade was halting the advance at Capuzzo, the 7th Armoured Brigade heavily engaged by the German 5th Light Division. Initially the two RTR regiments had attacked and destroyed a large supply column, but the tanks of 5th Light Division (including MK IVs) had separated the two regiments, by some 6 miles. This meant that 2nd and 6th RTR being forced to fight separate engagements all day, with 6th RTR being attacked first and nightfall it only had nine Crusader tanks serviceable. The Germans then turned to attack 2nd RTR but nightfall curtailed their attack and both RTR regiments withdrew east of the wire to refuel. By nightfall 6th RTR only had nine Crusader tanks serviceable and the tank strength of 7th Armoured Brigade was reduced to just twenty-five tanks. By the end of the Operation only five of the original 52 Crusaders of 6th RTR had actually been present throughout all the battles it fought.

Rommel took the withdraw of the 2nd and 6th RTR as a sign that the British left flank was crumbling and on the night of 16th June, he concentrated both the German 15th Panzer and 5th Light Divisions and struck hard at the left flank on the 7th Armoured Division. The German attack started at 04:30 hrs with 75 tanks supported by artillery and smashed straight through the Division’s lines, with the Germans heading for the crux of the battle at Halfaya Pass. The 4th Indian Division had been pushed out of Sollum and was ordered to withdraw along the coastal plain. At Fort Capuzzo 22nd Guard Brigade were nearly trapped by the advance and General Creagh ordered the surviving tanks of both 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades to fight a defensive battle. Ably supported by the 25 pdrs of the Support Group, the British tanks fought a six hour battle, which gave time for the 22nd Guards Brigade and the 4th Indian Division to withdraw successfully. When he found out that his trap had been unsuccessful Rommel was furious. Supported by RAF bombers XIII Corps was in retreat and 17th June 7th Armoured Division was back in Sofafi, where it had started from three days before.

Morale was not good, with nearly 1,000 casualties (122 killed, 588 wounded and 259 missing), and with 91 tanks (including 58 Matildas and 29 Cruisers) being lost, nearly 81% of the British tanks were out of action within three days of the offensive starting. The Germans had lost just twelve tanks, by comparison. The Royal Tank Regiment’s history described the offensive bitterly as “Battleaxe became a byword for blundering.”

The battle had shown that the British tanks, even the heavily armoured Matilda, were no match for the dreaded 88mm. With the Germans now receiving large numbers of a long barreled 50mm anti-tank gun (PAK 38) which was nearly as effective, British tank tactics needed reviewing, as the German anti-tank gun ruled the desert battlefield. Winston Churchill was disappointed with the failure of “Battleaxe” and replaced General Wavell (sending him to India) with General Sir Claude Auchinleck. It was to be five months before the British attacked again.


When the attack alarm was given, two patrols from Point 208 were sent 2 miles to the south because of mist which blanketed the area. Fire was held for some time after tanks were first observed, because they were in the barrage area of Point 206. The 37-mm antitank guns opened fire first to drive off armored cars which were within 165 yards. Meanwhile the barrage from Point 206 had ceased, but Paulewicz gave orders to hold all antitank fire until vehicles approached to within close range in order not to give away antitank positions prematurely. This policy proved effective, for subsequent British artillery fire on Point 208 was inaccurate.

At 1015 on June 15, the British made a pincer attack on Point 208 with 45 tanks. The attacking force was soon reinforced to 70 tanks. Fire by all weapons was opened at close range. The left or easterly sector of the area was overrun, one 37-mm and one 20-mm antitank gun were knocked out, and one of the 88-mm guns was silenced. The commander of Point 208 immediately ordered the three 88-mm guns on the other flank to concentrate on the eastern sector, and this saved the situation for the Germans by enabling the silenced 88-mm to reopen fire. By 1130 hours 11 British tanks had been smashed and the rest driven away, and in the afternoon a new 14-tank attack was thrown back with 8 tanks knocked out. After that, Point 208 was secure and was used as a base for reforming the 8th Tank Regiment and the mobile infantry reserve.

The 1st Battalion of the 33d Antiaircraft Regiment had knocked out 19 tanks with its 88-mm guns. The description of the battle given in the battalion report differs slightly from that of Paulewicz. The 88-mm guns opened up at 1,760 yards and drove back the first tank attack without inflicting any casualties. In the pincer attack, the gun on the left flank knocked out two cruiser tanks before it was overrun. The three other 88-mm guns on the right opened fire upon the other arm of the pincers at 1,550 yards without getting hits, but later knocked out seven cruiser tanks at close range. In the third attack the 88-mm guns opened at 880 yards, knocking out eight cruiser and later two infantry tanks.


The Barbarigo, seen here in the Garonne estuary returning to Bordeaux after an Atlantic patrol, was the most successful submarine of the Marcello class, sinking seven ships totalling 39,300 grt. With LtCdr. Enzo Grossi in command, the Barbarigo attacked two groups of enemy warships, one off Brazil in May and one off Freetown in October 1942 respectively. Both attacks took place at night, and in each case one US battleship was reported as sunk, thus giving a big boost to Italian wartime propaganda. Actually, the ships attacked by the Barbarigo were much smaller and none was sunk. The two events won LtCdr. Grossi important decorations and awards, but he was stripped of them after the war, sparking numerous controversies which lasted for many years after the end of the Second World War. The Barbarigo was sunk by enemy aircraft in the Bay of Biscay, probably between 17 and 19 June 1943.

Italian submarine of the BETASOM base in the mercantile harbour dry dock, Bordeaux, 1940

Bordeaux Sommergibile — Italian Navy submarine base, set up in August 1940.

BETASOM is an Italian language acronym meaning B Sommergibile or B submarines and it refers to the submarine base established at Bordeaux by the Regia Marina during World War II. From this base, Italian submarines participated in the Battle of the Atlantic, the anti-shipping campaign against Britain.

Axis naval co-operation started after signing the Pact of Steel in June 1939 with meetings in Friedrichshafen and an agreement to exchange technical information. After the Italian entry into the war and the Fall of France, the Italian Navy established a base at Bordeaux, which was within the German occupation zone. The Italians were allocated a sector of the Atlantic south of Lisbon to patrol. The base was opened in August 1940 and the captured French passenger ship De Grasse was used a depot ship. Admiral Perona commanded the base, under control of the German u-boat commander, Doenitz. About 1600 men were based there.

The base could house up to 30 submarines and it had dry docks and two basins connected by locks. Shore barracks accommodated a security guard of 250 men of the San Marco Battalion.

A second base was established at La Pallice to allow submerged training, which was not possible at Bordeaux.

Operational detail

Three Italian submarines patrolled off the Canary Islands and Madeira from June 1940, followed by three more off the Azores. When these patrols were completed the six boats returned to their new base at Bordeaux. Their initial patrol area was the North western Approaches and at the start they out-numbered their German allies’ submarines. Doenitz was pragmatic about the Italians, seeing them as inexperienced but useful for reconnaissance and likely to gain expertise.

He was disappointed. The Italian submarines sighted convoys but lost contact and failed to make effective reports. Even when assigned to weather reporting – critical for the war effort on both sides – they failed to do this competently. Fearing that German operations would be prejudiced, Doenitz reassigned the Italians to the southern area where they could act independently. In this way, about thirty Italian boats achieved some success, without much impact on the critical areas of the campaign.

German assessments were scathing. Doenitz described the Italians as “inadequately disciplined” and “unable to remain calm in the face of the enemy”. When the British tanker British Fame was attacked by the Malaspina, “the officer of the watch and lookouts were on the bridge and the captain was dozing in a deckchair below”. It took five torpedoes to sink the tanker and, at one point, the tanker’s gunfire forced the Malaspina to submerge to safety. The Italians towed the lifeboats to safety, an act worthy of praise, but one against Doenitz’s orders and leaving the submarine open to attack for 24 hours.

Seven Betasom submarines were adapted to carry critical war materiel from the Far East (Bagnolin, Barbarigo, Cappellini, Finzi, Finzi, Giuliani, Tazzoli, Giuliani and Torelli). Two were sunk, two were captured in the Far East by the Germans after the Italian surrender and used by them and a fifth was captured in Bordeaux by the Germans, but not used.

Altogether, thirty-two Italian boats operated in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943, of which sixteen were lost as shown in the following list:

1940: Tarantini, Faà di Bruno and Nani.

1941: Marcello, Glauco, Bianchi, Baracca, Malaspina, Ferraris, Marconi.

1942: Calvi and Morosini.

1943: Archimede, Tazzoli, Da Vinci and Barbarigo.

Of the sixteen remaining boats, on 8 September 1943 the Cagni was in the southern Indian Ocean, and made for the Allied port of Durban, South Africa; prior to that, other submarines had returned to the Mediterranean and only seven boats were in Bordeaux as of mid-1943: Cappellini, Tazzoli, Giuliani, Barbarigo, Finzi, Bagnolini and Torelli. All were scheduled to be converted into transport submarines to ferry strategic materials to and from the Far East and, in fact, three one-way transport missions were carried out successfully. Tazzoli and Barbarigo were sunk on their first missions, while Cappellini, Giuliani and Torelli managed to reach Singapore between July and August 1943; after the Armistice they were seized by the Japanese, and later handed over to the Kriegsmarine. The Giuliani was lost in 1944, while the Cappellini and Torelli came under Japanese control after May 1945 and were scrapped after the war. The two last transport boats – Bagnolini and Finzi – were being overhauled at Bordeaux when the Armistice was proclaimed, and were thus seized by the Germans. Altogether, the thirty-two submarines of the Regia Marina operating in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943 sank 101 Allied merchant ships totalling 568,573 grt; an additional four freighters (35,765 grt) were damaged. The most successful submarine was the Da Vinci, with sixteen ships totalling over 120,000 grt, and other boats sank from one to seven ships each; only four submarines (Faà di Bruno, Glauco, Marcello and Velella) sank no ships at all.


The base was bombed by the British on several occasions

After the Italian Armistice in September 1943 the base was seized by the Germans. Some of the Italian personnel joined the Germans independently of the Italian Social Republic.

List of submarines operating from Betasom

All Italian submarines based in the Mediterranean had to transit the Straits of Gibraltar to reach the Atlantic. Twenty eight did this sucessfully, without incident. Another four boats based in Italian East Africa reached the base after the fall of the Colony in 1941.

Transferred from the Mediterranean in 1940






Giuliani (this boat was transferred for a time to Gdynia to train Italian submariners in German Navy techniques)



Da Vinci











Faà di Bruno








The Cagni was transferred in 1942

Transferred from the Red Sea Flotilla





In 1941 it was decided to return some of the boats to the Mediterranean. The Perla, Guglielmotti, Brin, Argo, Velella, Dandolo, Emo, Otaria, Mocenigo, and Veniero Glauco made the passage but Glauco was sunk by the Royal Navy.

Transport Submarines

Hitler asked Admiral Doenitz to find a cheaper solution to the Far East transport problem. Unwilling to remove from the operation theatre some good fighting vessels, Admiral Doenitz turned to Italy and proposed an agreement to Mussolini himself in order to exchange a number of submarines. Seven Italian ocean-going U-boats whose base was at Betasom ( Bordeaux ) were, according to Doenitz, too large and unfit for modern fighting techniques but they could still be converted into cargo ships. Mussolini accepted the proposal and within few months seven Italian vessels were sent to the yards for a total refitting.

In the second half of May 1943, as soon as the hulls had been thoroughly refitted, the first Italian cargo submarine sailed from Bordeaux soon followed by some more, all awaited by a tragic doom. Two of them, in fact, ( the Tazzoli and the Barbarigo ) disappeared in the sea, soon after leaving, probably sunk by allied aero naval forces, while the Giuliani and the Torelli, caught by the armistice of September 8th, when they were still in Malayan port of call, were seized by German naval forces operating in that base.

The apparent misfortune of the Italian submarines gave, however, a good opportunity to the Japanese who could recover from the captured ships 355 tons of strategic materials shipped from Germany, that is 55% of the total cargo. On the contrary the 377 tons of rubber and the 184 tons of pewter which had already been stowed in the holds of the three Italian ships never got to Germany because the Germans didn’t feel like using such worn out means of transport.

The Battle of Ravenna

Battle was joined on 11 April, Easter Sunday – from that very day, it was seen as an epic encounter. The Spanish and papal army took up a position south of Ravenna on the right bank of the river Ronco; the high embankments of the river were broad enough for large numbers of horse or foot to pass along them easily. Starting at right angles to the river, they dug a long, curving trench, leaving a gap at the river end. Their artillery was positioned at that end of the trench. The other units were drawn up in file, not to defend the line of the trench; the men-at-arms were nearest the river, the infantry in the centre and the light horse on the right wing. Pedro Navarro, who commanded the infantry, had placed in front of them about 50 light carts with projecting blades, protected by arquebuses. The French crossed the river near the city by a bridge de Foix had had built; d’Alegre was left with the rearguard to protect this. They took up position along the trench, the men-at-arms nearest the riverbank, with artillery placed before them, separate units of German, French and Italian infantry side by side, and to the left the light horse and archers.

The Spanish and papal troops were outnumbered and they knew it: they had about 20,000 men, while the French had 30,000 or more. 102 Cardona had put 1,500 men under Marcantonio Colonna into Ravenna, and much of the papal army was not there, because the Duke of Urbino refused to be under the orders of the viceroy. Alfonso d’Este with 100 men-at-arms and 200 light horse was with the French. More significantly, he had brought his renowned artillery, giving the French perhaps twice as many artillery pieces as the League. Besides the guns positioned opposite the Spanish artillery, a couple of pieces were placed on the other side of the river, and d’Este with his artillery at the far end of the French line.

The battle began with an artillery exchange, unprecedented in its length – over two hours – and its ferocity. The Spanish guns were aimed at the infantry, causing significant casualties; the League’s infantry were instructed by Navarro to move to a place where they could lie flat and evade the French and Ferrarese artillery. But there was no escape for their cavalry, who were caught in the crossfire. Eventually, the Spanish heavy cavalry were driven to leave their defensive position and attack the French men-at-arms. As they were trying to silence the Ferrarese guns, the Spanish light horse under the marchese di Pescara were attacked by the French light horse.

In the engagement between the French and Spanish men-at-arms, the Spanish were less disciplined and coordinated. D’Alegre and his rearguard joined the fight and turned the scales against the Spanish. Their rearguard under Alonso Carvajal broke and fled the field; Cardona left with them. Meanwhile the French infantry crossed the trench to attack the League’s infantry, taking heavy casualties from the arquebuses as they tried to break through the barrier of the carts. The Gascons were put to flight along the riverbank. As the Spanish infantry units and the landsknechts of the French army were locked in fierce combat, the French cavalry, having overcome the Spanish, were able to come to the aid of their foot. Fabrizio Colonna rallied what men-at-arms he could to defend the League infantry, but could not prevent their defeat. Although 3,000 Spanish infantry were able to retire in good order along the river bank, the rest were killed, captured or dispersed.

By mid-afternoon the hard-fought battle was over. Contemporaries, appalled at the scale of the slaughter, considered it to be the bloodiest fought on Italian soil for centuries. It was estimated that upwards of 10,000 men were killed; some put the total as high as 20,000. There were disagreements about which army had suffered the greater mortality. It was probably the League, whose losses may have been three times those of the French. In one significant respect, the French losses were greater – among the commanders. While the Spanish lost some experienced and valued captains, the more prominent were captured rather than killed, including Pedro Navarro, Fabrizio Colonna and Ferrante Francesco d’Avalos, marchese di Pescara; the papal legate, Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, was also taken prisoner after the battle. French losses among their commanders and nobles were heavy. Among the fallen were Gaston de Foix, apparently killed by Spanish infantry, Yves d’Alegre and his son, Soffrey Alleman, seigneur de Mollart, the captain of the Gascon infantry, and Philip of Fribourg and Jacob Empser, captains of the landsknechts.

For the French, the death of de Foix cast the greatest shadow over their victory. If his bravery had bordered on the foolhardy, in his brief period as commander of the army he had shown himself an inspiring leader, always in the thick of the action. Cardona, by contrast, seems to have left leadership to his subordinate commanders; he was widely blamed for their defeat. `In truth, he knows nothing of warfare’, was the verdict of Vich, Ferdinand’s ambassador in Rome, `and everyone complains that he never asks for advice or comes to a decision.’ Others have judged the outcome of the battle the result of the devastating effect of Alfonso d’Este’s deploy- ment of his artillery: `the true cause of the French victory’, according to Pieri. The French themselves were more critical of his role, for his guns had caused many casualties among them too, as he continued to fire once the troops were engaged.

The killing continued the following day, as the city of Ravenna, after an offer to capitulate had been made, was sacked by unrestrained Gascons and landsknechts who entered by a breach made in the walls by the earlier bombardment. Within a few days, nearly all the Romagna had surrendered to the French, only the fortresses holding out a little longer. This conquest was not due to any concerted effort by the French, for the weary troops were occupied in looking after their wounded and their booty from Ravenna. La Palisse, as the senior captain, had assumed command. He quarrelled with the Duke of Ferrara, who left the camp with his surviving men, some of the wounded and his prisoners, including Colonna and Pescara. News arrived that the English and Spanish had invaded France, that Maximilian had made a truce with Venice, and that the Swiss were again threatening Milan. Nevertheless, to save money, 4,600 infantry were dismissed.

La Palisse left for the Milanese on 20 April with over half the remaining troops. Cardinal Sanseverino, in his capacity of legate of Bologna for the schismatic council, and his brother Galeazzo, with 300 lances and 6,000 infantry, stayed to complete the conquest of the Romagna in the name of the council. When Louis’s orders – issued when he was unaware of the real state of affairs in Italy – arrived, they were for the army to press on to Rome. The army commanders decided the threat to Lombardy was more urgent.

The Campaigns of Gaston de Foix

Gaston of Foix, Duke of Nemours (1489-1512), army commander of King Louis XII of France in the first italian war. (19th century depiction).

Born in Mazeres, Ariege, Gaston de Foix, duke of Nemours, was the son of Jean de Foix and Marie d’Orléans, sister of LOUIS XII, and the grandson of Eleonor of Aragon, queen of Navarre. He was made a duke and peer in 1505, then assumed the title of king of Navarre. He was 23 when he took command of the army in Italy and revealed his martial talents. In the course of a lightninglike campaign, after having liberated Bologna, he took Brescia, but was killed during the Battle of Ravenna.


Ravenna: Guns were to play a decisive role in the battle of Ravenna (1512). Gaston de Foix was in command of another French army (with German Landsknechts rather than Swiss) in Lombardy fighting an alliance of Spain, The Pope, and Venice. His cannon had breached the walls of Ravenna when a Spanish-led army came to its relief. Having got his troops in line, Gaston halted them and brought up his artillery, which bombarded the entrenched Spanish camp for two hours. In turn the Spanish guns fired on the German and French infantry, killing 2000 of them in this same period of time. (Fabrizio Colonna, when a prisoner after the battle, said that he had seen one cannonball knock over 33 men-at-arms.) When the French managed to bring more cannon into play, the Spanish cavalry left their camp and charged, only to be defeated by the French cavalry. The first French attack on the Spanish infantry was by 2000 crossbowmen, who met such a withering fire from arquebuses and swivel-guns mounted on carts, that they “melted away”. An attack by the landsknechts made little progress until the Spanish were taken in the flank by the victorious French cavalry. The battlefield saw almost unprecedented totals of both French (4000), and Spanish (9000) dead.

The Holy League Louis XII had ordered his troops to withdraw from the Veneto because of the new league of Julius, Ferdinand and Venice, proclaimed in Rome in early October.  It was called the Holy League, because it was supposed to be for the benefit of the papacy. Ferdinand, who had suggested the League and was to provide most of its military strength, had emphasized it should not be explicitly against any power, but he intended it as a restraint on Louis. According to him, Louis aimed to conquer all Italy. Julius was happy to agree to it, and the Venetians were pleased to be leaving their diplomatic isolation. Venetian obligations under the League were comparatively light: to contribute what troops they could, and their galleys; the pope was to provide 600 men-at-arms, under a commander supplied by Ferdinand. The king was to send 1,200 men-at-arms, 1,000 light horse and 10,000 Spanish infantry; the pope and Venice were to pay 40,000 ducats a month towards the cost of the Spanish troops. Ferdinand was keen to include Henry VIII of England in the confederation (which Henry ratified), and he also made a separate treaty with him in which they agreed to attack France in Aquitaine.

Louis had hoped to avoid becoming involved again in war against the pope, by the threat of a Church council: but the prospects for that were unpromising. Few clergy, even from France, were willing to be associated with it. Maximilian’s support was vacillating, Ferdinand was vehemently opposed and none of the Italian states were in favour either. Reluctant hosts, the Florentines under pressure from Louis had allowed the council to be held at Pisa, but would not compel their own clergy to attend it. Even before the council was formally opened on 5 November, its failure was apparent. The council quickly decided to transfer to Milan, but was no better attended there.

The French had a new commander, the king’s nephew, Gaston de Foix. Aged only twenty-two when he was appointed Louis’s lieutenant in Italy and governor of Milan in October 1511, de Foix had already taken part in several Italian campaigns. In what would turn out to be a brief career as commander of the army, de Foix would prove himself a remarkable military leader. On the king’s orders, he concentrated the bulk of the troops in the duchy at Parma, preparing to confront the Holy League. The papal troops in the Romagna, however, were biding their time until the Spanish army arrived from Naples.

The first test for de Foix would be dealing with an incursion by the Swiss. They began to muster on the northern Milanese border at the end of November. As he had to leave troops in Parma, Bologna and on the eastern borders of the duchy, de Foix had with him only 500 lances, 200 gentlemen and 200 mounted archers of the king’s household, and 2,000 infantry. Louis sent orders to raise 6,000 more infantry, and instructed de Foix not to attack the Swiss until they were on the plain, and then to fight them and force them to retire. By the time he sent these orders the Swiss were already on the move. De Foix and his captains had decided to adopt the strategy of the previous year: to stay close to them, avoiding battle, trying to hinder them from finding supplies.

By early December around 10,000 Swiss had gathered, and more were arriving; they chose Jacob Stapfer as their commander. Advancing towards Milan, they kept strict discipline and paid for their supplies. By 14 December they were in sight of the city, and they sent an appeal to the people, saying they came as liberators, not conquerors, in hopes the Milanese would rise against the French.  But the Milanese had agreed to provide 6,000 militia to help defend the city, and reinforcements were arriving from other parts of the duchy. The Swiss were not strong enough to lay siege to a city the size of Milan, and there was no sign of League troops arriving to support them. Negotiations began: the French were prepared to offer money, but the Swiss also demanded the cession of Locarno and Lugano, and unimpeded transit through the duchy, whenever they wanted, for Swiss soldiers going to fight for the pope – terms wholly unacceptable to the French. Then, unexpectedly, the camp broke up. Disorganized bands of Swiss made their way home, devastating the country in their path.

Fortunately for the French, they had not had to deal simultaneously with an attack by the League. The Spanish troops, under the command of the viceroy of Naples, Ramon de Cardona, did not arrive in the Romagna until December. There was a desultory campaign in the Romagna before in late January the pope finally got his wish for a siege of Bologna. But by a rapid forced march over about thirty miles in bitter weather, de Foix brought reinforcements into Bologna on 5 February, taking unawares the Spanish and papal troops encamped to the south of the city. When Cardona learned of their arrival, he lifted the siege and withdrew.

No sooner had de Foix accomplished the relief of Bologna, than he was informed that Brescia had fallen to the Venetians. At the head of 10,000 men raised in the Bresciano, the prominent Brescian noble, Luigi Avogadro entered the city during the night of 2/3 February, followed by Venetian troops. Revolts against the French broke out in the Bresciano, and in the city of Bergamo and its territory; French garrisons in Brescia and Bergamo took refuge in the cities’ fortresses. As it was feared that other areas would also rebel, Giangiacomo Trivulzio toured Lodi, Crema and Cremona with 2,000 infantry to secure them.

De Foix’s response to the news was swift. He left Bologna on 8 February, and on 17 February reached Brescia, a journey shortened by three or four days by Francesco Gonzaga granting de Foix and his troops transit through his lands. On the way, they were joined by some landsknechts who had been in Verona. The Venetians in Brescia were surprised to see them, having no idea the French could have come from Bologna in that time. Most of the men from the Bresciano who had come with Avogadro had been sent home, and the Venetians had few soldiers there.

On the night of 18/19 February de Foix led about 500 dismounted men-at-arms and 6,000 infantry by a hidden path into the fortress of Brescia, leaving d’Alegre with 500 men-at-arms to guard the walls. An assault was launched on the city, spearheaded by the men-at-arms, who crouched down when the ranks of the arquebusiers behind them fired their volleys.  The desperate defence was aided by women throwing tiles, stones, and boiling water from the rooftops. Some stradiots fled the fighting through one of the city gates, only to run into d’Alegre’s men, who were able to enter the city and join in the slaughter. By evening, the defenders had been annihilated; several thousand corpses lay in the city’s streets.

A summons to surrender had been rejected by the Venetian authorities in Brescia, which meant the city was, by the laws of war, legitimately open to sack. De Foix gave his soldiers their reward, and for three days the people of Brescia suffered one of the most terrible sacks of the Italian Wars. The estimated value of the spoils was three to four million ducats, including the heavy ransoms imposed on individuals; 4,000 cartloads of goods were said to have been taken away. So enriched were many French soldiers by booty and ransoms from Brescia that they left for home. Some blamed the decline of French fortunes in Italy on this depletion of their army: `the capture of Brescia was the ruin of the French in Italy’.  The city of Brescia was also punished by heavy fines, the loss of its privileges and the exile of many citizens, as were Bergamo and other places that had rebelled, but they were spared a sack.

De Foix returned to Milan and then to Emilia. When Maximilian wanted to exploit the success of the French for his own ends and urged him to send troops against Padua and Treviso, de Foix replied that he could not do anything without orders from the king, that the first concern was the Spanish army, and that the Swiss might return. Louis’s response was much the same. He instructed de Foix to gather his army together, seek out the Spanish army and bring it to a decisive engagement. There was some sense of urgency behind this project for a resolution on this front, for Louis was mindful of the preparations being made for an English invasion of France.

Ferdinand, on the other hand, wanted Cardona to bide his time until preparations for attacks on the French in Lombardy by the Venetians and the Swiss, and in the south-west of France by the Spanish and English were complete. Such instructions suited Cardona, who was naturally cautious – too cautious, some of his captains felt. So as the French army approached, the Spanish and papal forces drew back. The French were having serious difficulty in finding victuals, and could not afford to wait. After some debate among the commanders, it was decided to try to force the issue by attacking Ravenna, too important a city to be abandoned to them. An assault on 9 April was unsuccessful, but it did bring Cardona to approach to defend the city.