Grinding into the Mountainside: Italy on the Isonzo

The Obice da 105/14 modello 18 was a howitzer used by Italy during World War II. The howitzer was designed by Schneider in 1906. It was chosen by the Italian Regio Esercito to serve as their new field gun, but licence production by Ansaldo was slow.
The Cannone da 381/40 AVS was an Italian railway gun that saw action during World War I.
The Cannone da 75/27 modello 06 was a field gun used by Italy during World War I and World War II. It was a license-built copy of the Krupp Kanone M 1906 gun. It had seats for two crewmen attached to the gunshield as was common practice for the period. Captured weapons were designated by the Wehrmacht during World War II as the 7.5 cm Feldkanone 237(i).

On the Isonzo front, both sides suffered from the winter conditions, including ice storms and avalanches. Shelling and snipers forced both sides to work at night. The mountain troops on both sides grew more proficient at raiding and specialist weapons like flamethrowers made their first appearance. Boroevic´’s outnumbered Fifth Army still lacked enough shells but constantly improving defences and superb intelligence gave him a priceless advantage.

For the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo the Italian artillery continued to rely on area fire and not a detailed fire-plan, even after new regulations were disseminated: a 48-hour bombardment by over a thousand guns was simply more indiscriminate shellfire. Late snowfall and mist only compounded the coordination problems and the Italians were driven back with heavy losses. Alpini units, supported by their own mountain artillery, had more success. Both sides began to use mining in the high alpine passes to edge towards and under enemy positions, blasting holes in San Martino in 1916 and eventually honeycombing the Little Lagazuoi in the Dolomite Range.

Conrad von Hötzendorf was eager to punish the Italians for breaking the Triple Alliance. He could not match the strong Italian forces on the Isonzo, so he decided to shift the battle westwards to the South Tyrol and ordered Colonel-General Archduke Eugen to prepare a suitable plan for April 1916. The Fifth Army yielded some of its reserves and fresh artillery soon followed. The Italian First Army was poorly deployed and Cadorna, easily distracted by a minor thrust on the Carso, became aware of Austrian preparations too late to affect the outcome. Eugen’s infantry and artillery, supplemented by the units stripped from the Russian front, were well co-ordinated and made significant gains before they outpaced their already meagre supply system and Cadorna finally managed to stabilise the front line. The Archduke was pleased with his men and, although most of his reserves were withdrawn after Brusilov’s attack, he gave a press interview to publicise the fact that the defenders had lost more men than the attackers. Eugen believed that better defences and closer infantry–artillery co-ordination gave the Austrians a huge advantage over the Italians:

[On the Isonzo] it was demonstrated what our [Trentino] offensive has now confirmed: that our men, but not the Italians, could stand the horrors of drumfire … Specifically, the close cooperation between our infantry and our artillery, and the batteries among one another has been the main source of our success. Our artillery-based defence has cost the enemy veritable hecatombs of dead … The Italian prisoners unanimously declared the effect of our artillery fire was frightful, simply unendurable. Under cover of this artillery fire, it was possible for our infantry, with […] slight losses, to tear from the enemy, position after position … The Italian artillery answered our fire only weakly – not, as captured magazines afterward showed, from lack of ammunition, but because they were holding back for our infantry attacks …

The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo, in August, finally saw the Italians use a genuine artillery fire-plan. Colonel Pietro Badoglio, later a key figure in Mussolini’s regime, was assigned to plan the offensive and he and his staff selected a range of key targets including command bunkers, known supply dumps and artillery batteries. To show his confidence in the plan, Badoglio opted to personally lead a brigade attacking Mount Sabotino. For once the Austrians misread the situation and the size of the offensive surprised them. With only four heavy batteries and fewer than 600 light and medium guns, the Fifth Army was heavy outgunned and ran ruinously low on ammunition. The artillery bombardment cut all communications to the positions on Mount Sabotino and the Italians were able to overwhelm the defenders and trap many of them in their formidable kavernen. This time, when the inevitable counter-attack came, the Italians had enough time to establish their own defensive system. A similar success was experienced on San Michele but here the Austrians ran out of ammunition and their counter-attacks were driven back with heavy casualties. Just as a breakthrough glimmered, Cadorna lost his nerve and the Italian artillery reverted to re-arranging the geography while the Austrians strengthened the new defensive line on the Plava and received urgently needed shells. Further Italian attacks were predictably beaten back after savage fighting. Russian prisoners of war were brought into the Fifth Army sector to help construct an expanded defensive system, and as the Italians dithered, fresh artillery arrived to further strengthen the position.

Once again Cadorna returned to planning how to batter his way through to the Carso and the Duke of Aosta’s Third Army was instructed to prepare the latest assault. The fire-plan on this occasion required the artillery to soften up the front line, and to use heavy guns against the rear areas before intensifying the so-called ‘annihilation barrage’ just before dawn. The 9-hour bombardment was impressive but the Austrians held firm and their surviving gunners broke up the attacks. The bombardment of a key water pumping station that supplied the front line threatened to force the defenders to retreat but some Austrian naval flying boats destroyed the Italian long-range battery by bombing.

The new Italian tactics worked when the Austrian artillery was weak or low on ammunition. The Italians, not understanding how important artillery was to the Austrian system, did not emphasise counter-battery fire. That, combined with the strong Austrian defences, meant that too many attacks were broken up before they could make any progress. Worse, poor concealment meant that the Austrians could shatter attacks even before they commenced. Technical problems also hampered the Italians: their air force was still relatively weak, flash-spotting was difficult when the guns were in kaverne and sound-ranging was almost impossible in the mountains.

The bombardment before the Eighth Battle (although involving an even more intense barrage that destroyed 41 of the Fifth Army’s guns) made real progress because of the combination of dust and fog in the Carso sector during September. Austrian counter-battery and counter-assault fire inflicted heavy casualties but the Italians retained the advantage in both guns and ammunition. By the Ninth Battle the Italians were finally using curtain barrages to protect their hard-won advances, deluging the inevitable counter-attacks with gas and shrapnel before moving on to attack the Austrian second line. Only frenzied counter-attacks straight into the Italian advance prevented a major breakthrough. The Italians had learnt a great deal in 1916 but the Austrians were better at balancing resources and results. By comparison, the Italian success ‘bore no relation to the mighty expenditure of men and materiel that it cost’.

‘It will crush us all’: The Isonzo in 1917

On the Isonzo the morale of both armies was increasingly fragile. Cadorna ignored the growing criticism from his men and listened to the siren voices of Italian politicians (who wanted the Irredenta captured) and the demands of the Allies (who wanted constant pressure on all fronts). After considering the options, the Italian Third Army was ordered to attempt yet another attack into the Carso, but this time with more supporting artillery, including 166 new heavy batteries, but there was little sign of sophistication in the fire-planning. Even though the Italians had doubled their number of guns, they still had little more than a quarter of the numbers seen on the Western Front and the uncertain ammunition supplies meant that the rate of fire for heavy guns was a fifth of that seen in the Heavy Artillery Groups of the Royal Artillery. Field Marshal Robertson, visiting the front before the offensives of 1917, was stunned by the lack of pre-battle planning: ‘no system of co-operation existed between the artillery and the infantry in the attack; in fact the relations between the two seemed strained.’

Cadorna’s tenth offensive on the Isonzo began a few weeks after Nivelle’s offensive had collapsed and was delayed by the transfer of guns from the Trentino. On 10 May some 2,150 guns and 980 mortars blasted Austrian positions northwest of Gorizia for 44 hours. Initially the intention was to form a bridgehead at Hill 383 and then seize the Bainsizza Plateau. The Austrian artillery, firing at pre-planned sectors of the defensive system, shattered the first massed assaults. However, Italian numbers, a successful bombardment and dwindling Austrian ammunition stocks meant the Italians still managed to seize part of the Tri Santi position. Even then the Austrians reacted quickly, retaking several key positions in night attacks.

In other sectors the usual problems of coordination led to ruinously heavy casualties but the Italians grimly refocused their efforts. They shifted artillery from sector to sector and their methodical battering of Austrian positions enabled gradual progress. In some sectors intense shelling prevented either side from holding the objective. The attack on the Asiago Plateau was even less successful, with heavy rain disrupting the preparatory bombardment and Austrian machine guns slaughtering the fanti struggling through the mud and barbed wire. An Alpini captain described the aftermath: ‘the mountain is infinitely taciturn, like a dead world, with its snowfields soiled, the shell-craters, the burnt pines. But the breath of battle wafts over all – a stench of excrement and dead bodies.’ With typical petulance, Cadorna was furious with the slow progress of some units and blamed everyone but himself for the inadequacies of his own plan.

To launch the second phase of the battle, on to the Bainsizza Plateau, the Italians fired a million shells in 10 hours – approximately 20 shells for every foot of the front line. Dust and smoke from the intense bombardment covered the advancing infantry and major gains were made wherever the artillery were able to dominate the battlefield. The Austrians retained the key observation posts and utilised units released from the Eastern Front, using more flexible tactics and working more closely with their artillery support, to counter-attack and many of the Italian gains were lost. During the savage fighting both sides expended prodigious amounts of ammunition – the Austrian Fifth Army fired almost 2 million shells during the battle – a rate of expenditure that Austria’s industrial base could not support.

After a short pause, during which Cadorna displayed a ruthless disregard for the simmering discontent within the army, the Italians began planning the Eleventh Battle, which Cadorna described as a ‘general simultaneous attack’. The Second and Third Armies would take both Gorizia and the entire Bainsizza Plateau before capturing Tolmein, the Austrian Isonzo army’s main railhead. However, even if Cadorna’s plan succeeded, the Bainsizza was a rugged wilderness that would prove a poor basis for a fresh offensive, and Boroevic´ recognised this flaw in the plan for the eleventh Italian offensive far better than did his Italian opposite number. The Italians massed 3, 750 guns and 1,900 mortars, almost three times the Austrians’ total (450 heavy guns and 1,250 field and mountain guns), and four times the ammunition; the artillery duel would be the largest on that front. The barrage commenced on 18 August with the Italian guns, howitzers and mortars mercilessly hammering the entire front line. The quality of the artillery preparation was higher than in earlier battles and there were a small number of Allied batteries supporting the attack. In some sectors the defenders were rapidly cut off from headquarters and the defending corps commanders found it difficult to coordinate counter-attacks or to update the Isonzo army’s headquarters on the progress of the battle. Elsewhere the difficult terrain and poor Italian planning gave the Austrians enough time to reorganise and prevent a breakthrough.

Weak planning left the Italians unable to capitalise on their gains. Despite their collapsing defences, the Austrians could choose to withdraw or to feed troops into the meat-grinder. Boroevic´ was assured by the High Command that a counter-offensive was being planned and commenced a series of skilful Austrian withdrawals that delighted the Italians but ensured that he was able to consolidate on new positions on the eastern edge of the plateau. The end result was that the Italians secured most of the Bainsizza Plateau but stalled in front of Boroevic´’s new position, unsure of how to proceed. Monte Santo was taken by coup de main but desperate assaults on San Gabriele by massed columns were torn apart by artillery and machine-gun fire. Desperate counter-attacks, supported by heavy artillery, prevented the last of the Tri Santi from falling; the mountain is said to have lost 10 metres in altitude due to the near-continuous bombardment by guns of calibres of up to 420mm. Angelo Gatti, a staff officer in the supreme command, described his mounting despair: ‘I feel something collapsing inside me; I shall not be able to endure this much longer, none of us will; it is too gigantic, truly limitless, it will crush us all.’ The Austrians looked as if they had suffered a major defeat but, after Cadorna’s grimly pyrrhic victory, the tide was about to turn.

There are excellent British sources on the quality of the Italian artillery at this stage of the war. Lieutenant Hugh Dalton served with the B2 Heavy Artillery Group assigned to the Isonzo sector while Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Moberly commanded B1 Heavy Artillery Group. Dalton was particularly impressed with the individual technical skills of the Italian artillery and their incomparable mountain engineers but noted that local commanders were very keen to secure Royal Artillery support. While the total number of shells appears impressive on the Isonzo Front, Dalton noticed that the ammunition levels were lower than those in France and Flanders and noted that this was reflected in the rates of fire, RA ‘ordinary’ rate being 30 rounds per hour, five times Italy’s fuoco normale. Dalton also noted that the proportion of heavy guns was one quarter of what he had experienced in France. The abundance of good observation post sites astonished the Royal Artillery officers. Depending on the sector, there were kavernen, mountain huts or treetop hides, all under cloudless skies. Such luxury delighted one of Dalton’s colleagues, who gleefully described Italy as a ‘gunner’s heaven’. The no. 101 fuse was almost as effective as the no. 106 in Italy due to the impact advantage of hitting solid rock. Wire-clearing was relatively simple but a great deal of fire was required to destroy rockhewn trenches or kavernen – Moberly and his Italian colleagues naturally preferred enfilade fire to lobbing shells straight into the enemy’s defensive line and both Dalton and Moberly were impressed by the ‘man-killing’ effect of high explosive in the mountains (as at Gallipoli, the rocky terrain increased the effectiveness of the artillery).

Moberly was equally impressed by the Italian engineers but rather less impressed with the higher levels of command. The lack of telephone wire for communications surprised him, particularly as the observations posts that had so impressed Dalton tended to be distant from the battery and thus required even more wire than usual. Italian HAG equivalents, the raggruppamenti, were allotted to sectors, not to particular assault or defensive units, and Moberly was surprised by the fact that there was no expectation that he would meet with the commander of the division he was supporting. During the first operation supported by B1, Moberly noted the Italians were still grappling with technical issues that had been identified and solved on the Western Front years before, particularly regarding communication between the assault units and the supporting artillery, a situation aggravated by the smoke and dust created by the bombardment obscuring the target. He was also troubled by the lack of specific missions assigned to his men and the concentration on planned but uncoordinated support for attacks.

Moberly noted that the ineffectiveness of Italian counter-battery fire was due to the HAGs assigned to the task being allocated to army and not corps command and thus lacking tactical coordination in the battles. As a result the counter-battery staff soon lost touch with the progress of the battle and found it difficult to coordinate fire. Moberly even received orders to shell positions that his own observation posts had reported as silent for days. Commando Supremo had made counter-battery work a priority for ammunition allocation, but had not realised that numbers did not equal results. Counter-battery orders criss-crossed the chain of command, bypassing the heavy artillery raggruppamenti and going to the field artillery groupes, a system that naturally led to some confusion and to errors that made counter-battery fire ineffective. Attempts to solve problems created others: the deliberate simplification of orders, for example, speeded up their transmission across scratchy telephone lines, but sometimes led to requests for a handful of shells so even a timely request lacked enough power. The only aspect that impressed Moberly was that counter-battery officers spent four days out of every eight at front-line observation posts and thus established a close relationship with the Forward Observation Officers.


75-mm field gun – Cannone da 75/27 modello 11

Italian Field Artillery

Although its Turin Arsenal manufactured a limited number of mountain guns, before World War I, Italy acquired its artillery from foreign sources, including Krupp of Germany, the Austro – Hungarian Skoda factory, and the French Deport firm. These included the Krupp-designed 75mm 75/27 Mo. 06, which also saw service in World War II, and the 75mm Gun Mo. 11 Deport. Designed by the prolific Colonel Albert Deport of France and adopted in 1912, the 75mm Gun Mo. 11 Deport introduced a dual recoil system as well as the split trail carriage. The latter innovation incorporated twin hinged trails that could be closed for limbering and then spread apart to stabilize the piece and allow greater recoil at higher elevation. The Mo. 11 was acquired by other powers as well as Italy, and the split trail carriage quickly became the standard for nearly all field pieces worldwide.

Italy also fielded the 75mm Gun Mo. 06/12 and a howitzer designated the Obice da 100/17 Mo. 14. An Austro-Hungarian design, the quick – firing caliber 100mm Mo. 14 howitzer was adopted in 1914, and numbers were also captured from the Central Powers at the end of World War I. The 100/17 saw extensive Italian service during World War II and was also used by Polish and Romanian forces.

Cannone da75/27 modello 11

Although the Cannone da75/27 modello 11 was designed by a Frenchman it was produced only in Italy and may thus qualify as an Italian weapon. The designer was named Deport, who conceived the idea of a recoil mechanism that could stay fixed in a horizontal plane while the barrel could be elevated to any angle desired. The advantages of this system are rather obscure, but the Italian army certainly took to the idea to the extent that they produced the modello 11 in large numbers.

The modello 11 was a relatively small field piece, as a result mainly of the fact that it was originally ordered for cavalry use, In time it was issued to other arms and became a standard field gun, Apart from the unusual (an uncopied) recoil system, the modello 11 also had one other novel feature for its day. This was split trail legs which gave the gun an unusually wide traverse by contemporary standards, and also enabled the barrel to be elevated to a maximum of 65* allowing the gun to be used in mountainous areas if required, In action the trails were spread and instead of the more usual tail spade the legs were held in place by stakes hammered through slots at the end of each. This certainly held the gun steady for firing, but there were two disadvantages to this system. One was that any large change of traverse could not be made until the stakes had been laboriously removed from the ground; the other was that on rocky or hard ground it took time to hammer in the stakes. For all these potential troubles the Italians used the stake securing method on many of their artillery designs, large and small.

The modello 11 was a handy little weapon with a good range; its 10240-m (11200-yard) capability was well above that of many of its contemporaries. However, for its size it was rather heavy, which was no doubt a factor in its change from the cavalry to the field artillery, In action it had a crew of at least four men although a full detachment was six, the extra two looking after the horses.

It is known that some of these guns were used by the Italian maritime artillery militia within the Italian coastal defence organization. The modello 11s appear to have been used as light mobile batteries that could be used for close-in beach defences of likely landing spots. Many of the modello 11s were still in use in this role after 1940, and many other modello 11s were in service with the field arti1lery. In fact so many were still on hand in 1943 that many came under German control, with the designation 7.5-cm Feldkanone 244(i), for use by the German occupation forces in Italy. By that time many modello 11s had been modified for powered traction by conversion of the old wooden spoked wheels to new steel-spoked wheels and revised shields; these modernized equipments used pneumatic tyres.


Cannone da 75/27

Calibre: 75 mm (2,95 in)

Length of barrel 2.132 m (83.93 in)

Weights: in action 1076 kq (2,372 1b);

Travelling: 1900 kg (4,189 lb)

Elevation: – 15* to +65*

Traverse: 52*

Muzzle velocity: 502 m (1,647 ft) per second

Maximum range: 10240 m ( 11,200 yards)

Shell weight: 6.35 kg (14 lb)



Hood agreed that Nelson might take the town with five hundred troops backed by three ships of the line from Hood’s squadron but doubted that Nelson could take the heights as well. Hood therefore went back on shore from Victory two days after his first meeting with Dundas to press the matter with him again. But he got no further: Dundas refused even more vehemently than before, declaring that an attack on Bastia was impracticable without the reinforcement of two thousand troops requested from Gibraltar, adding ‘I consider the siege of Bastia, with our present means and force, to be a most visionary and rash attempt, such as no Officer could be justified in undertaking.’ Dundas’s force consisted of sixteen hundred regulars and 180 artillery men. Nelson’s estimate of the strength of the French in Bastia had been one thousand regulars and fifteen hundred ‘irregulars’, the latter Corsicans.

Hood’s written reply to Dundas was sharply edged: ‘I must take the liberty to observe, that however visionary and rash an attempt to reduce Bastia may be in your opinion, to me it appears very much the reverse, and to be perfectly a right measure…and I am now ready and willing to undertake the reduction of Bastia at my own risk, with the force and means at present here, being strongly impressed with the necessity of it.’2

Faced by that intractable declaration of intent Dundas resigned his command. Unfortunately for Hood the successor to the command, General d’Aubant, shared Dundas’s views. And he unrelentingly stuck by them. He not only refused soldiers for an assault on and siege of Bastia but also withheld from Hood mortars, field guns and ammunition from the stores he controlled at Fiorenzo. Hood was compelled to send to Naples for the materiel he lacked. But he exercised his own powers by recalling on board his ship’s soldiers from four regiments who had previously been allocated to him to do temporary service as marines and whom he had loaned to Dundas for the capture of Fiorenzo. Since these soldiers were now registered as part of the complements of the ships aboard which they were quartered d’Aubant was unable to refuse to release them.

The siege of this remote Corsican fortress of Bastia became bitter infighting between the Royal Navy and the army. With the soldiers under d’Aubant’s command confined to their garrison in Fiorenzo, this was the navy’s war or, so to speak, Hood’s and Nelson’s personal campaign. For Nelson, Bastia had to fall, and soon. To him the attitude of the army in refusing to join with Hood in the assault was incomprehensible. ‘Not attacking it I could not but consider as a national disgrace. If the Army will not take it, we must, by some way or the other.’

Through March Nelson maintained the blockade of Bastia, with Agamemnon riding out near-continuous gales and thick weather. From his storm-lashed quarterdeck Nelson angrily watched the town daily strengthening its defences: ‘…how that has hurt me’. Some of the hardship he was imposing upon Bastia was being experienced aboard Agamemnon as well. On 16 March he reported to Hood, ‘We are really without firing, wine, beef, pork, flour and almost without water: not a rope, canvas, twine or nail in the ship…We are certainly in a bad plight at present, not a man has slept dry for many months.’ As postscript to that same note in his journal he added, ‘But we cheerfully submit to it all, if it but turns out for the advantage and credit of our country.’ Holding on was critical for Nelson personally, his fear being that if Agamemnon were compelled to go to Leghorn for stores he would lose his own role in the attack on Bastia. He was in something like near panic over missing out on another land operation, one so closely involving his own efforts and persuasion. He put it to Hood, ‘My wish is to be present at the attack of Bastia; and if your Lordship intends me to command the Seamen who may be landed, I assure you I shall have the greatest pleasure in doing it, or any other service where you may think I can do most good: even if my ship goes into port to refit, I am ready to remain.’ Hood responded and Agamemnon’s deficiencies were supplied from the squadron and other sources.3

Nelson, together with an army artillery officer and an army engineer, then made steady reconnaissance ashore to decide landing beaches and sites for batteries northward of Bastia. He pitched a tent on a beach with the union flag hoisted above it, and was thereafter in continual movement between tent and Agamemnon. His presence on land was constant because his sailors, with others from the squadron, were building batteries, clearing roads and hauling guns and ammunition to the batteries. Like the earlier effort, it was a phenomenal task dragging guns up those rocky and precipitous heights, requiring physical strength and stamina that astonished all who witnessed it. ‘It is very hard service for my poor seamen, dragging guns up such heights as are scarcely credible,’ Nelson wrote. And, after his sailors had dragged guns to a pinnacle just seven hundred yards from the town, he described it as a feat ‘which never, in my opinion, would have been accomplished by any other than British seamen’.

Hood took full command on 4 April, though preparation for the siege remained with Nelson. By 11 April three batteries equipped with sixteen heavy guns and mortars were ready to open fire on Bastia. Hood sent in a flag of truce demanding surrender. The answer he got from La Combe St Michel, Corsica’s commissioner, was defiant: ‘I have hot shot for your ships and bayonets for your troops. When two-thirds of our troops are killed, I will then trust to the generosity of the English.’

The battle for Bastia began at once. Navy and Bastia began pouring shot and mortars upon one another. The cannonade was immense. From commanding positions over the town, the citadel and the outworks five British 24-pounders, four mortars and two heavey carronades poured their fire while the ships opened up from the sea. Thus it was to remain through April and on into the third week of May. Bastia continued to hold out defiantly, in spite of the destruction raining upon it and the starvation afflicting its garrison and populace.

Bizarrely, throughout the campaign General d’Aubant and his officers had simply stood by as interested observers.

On 19 May the French asked for negotiation. A boat went from Victory to the town. ‘The enemy met us without arms, and our officers advancing, they shook hands, and were good friends: they said it was all over, and that Bastia was ours,’ Nelson recorded in his journal. General d’Aubant and the soldiers from Fiorenzo simultaneously appeared on the hills above the town. They were there because reinforcement had just arrived from Gibraltar. They then proceeded to occupy Bastia and all its outposts.

The garrison was far stronger than Hood believed and had held out longer than expected. Nelson, however, had known. He knew it two months before the siege began. Here, then, was the near-fearful recklessness that ever pulsed in this extraordinary man. He had got the information from a packet boat intercepted by Agamemnon. The mailbag on board contained a letter from Corsica’s commissioner, General La Combe St Michel, declaring that he needed subsistence for eight thousand French and Corsican soldiers. This was four times as many as estimated by Nelson and Hood, but Nelson kept that critical information to himself. He rightly believed that disclosure would set Hood against any assault against Bastia. It would embarrassingly confirm Dundas’s verdict that such an attack would be ‘visionary and rash’. Failure to attack had been insufferable to Nelson. It went wholly against his disdain for holding off and failing to try. There was as well the conviction that his sailors could master any situation given the proper leadership and motivation.

Had he persuaded Hood into the sort of landing that he had cried out for at the start it could have finished them both, for they likely would have suffered heavy loss in the attack. This provided illustration of the length to which Nelson was prepared to go, whatever the risk and circumstances, to ensure action for himself. It worked at sea, and much of his future glory would be based upon it. But he never learned the point that Napoleon, in his memoirs, made on the difference at battle scene between land and sea: ‘A marine general has nothing to guess; he knows where his enemy is, and knows his strength. A land general never knows anything with certainty, never sees his enemy plainly…When the armies are facing each other, the slightest accident of the ground, the least wood, may hide a party of the hostile army. The most experienced eye cannot be certain whether it sees the whole of the enemy’s army, or only three fourths of it…The marine general requires nothing but an experienced eye; nothing relating to the enemy’s strength is concealed from him.’4 A year after Bastia had fallen Nelson was to confess, ‘I never yet told Lord Hood that…I had information given me of the enormous number of troops we had to oppose us; but my own honour, Lord Hood’s honour, and the honour of our country must have all been sacrificed, had I mentioned what I knew.’5 He had been prepared for that risk, and would be again. And in his correspondence on this matter he described as well as he ever would the settled principles that drove him: ‘I feel for the honour of my country, and had rather be beat than not make the attack. If we do not try we can never be successful…My reputation depends on the opinion I have given; but I feel an honest consciousness that I have done right. We must, we will have it, or some of our heads will be laid low. I glory in the attempt,’ he told his wife in one of his many assertive letters at the time. Or, on another occasion, ‘My disposition cannot bear tame and slow measures.’ Also, ‘…our country will, I believe, sooner forgive an officer for attacking his enemy than for letting it down’. And, in response to his wife’s continual fears over his safety, ‘Only recollect that a brave man dies but once, a coward all his life long.’

At all events, Bastia had been won. He and his sailors had done it. ‘The more we see of this place, the more we are astonished at their giving it up,’ Nelson said. Starvation was probably the greatest factor in compelling early surrender. On that point at least General Dundas has been insightfully correct.

The surrender and occupation of Bastia and its fortifications were complete by 22 May. The army had taken over, under Lieutenant Colonel Villettes, and for Nelson what had been his operation no longer was. An attack was about to be launched against the other fortress, Calvi, and he saw his own role diminished and uncertain. Although Hood had allowed Nelson a free hand while the army held off, he had never in any way defined Nelson’s command. In the new circumstances Nelson saw himself at a disadvantage with the army. He was, he said in a letter home, ‘everything, yet nothing ostensible’.

Nelson then put his unease to Hood: ‘Your Lordship knows exactly the situation I am in here. With Colonel Villettes I have no reason but to suppose I am respected in the highest degree…but yet I am considered as not commanding the seamen landed. My wishes may be, and are, complied with; my orders would possibly be disregarded. Therefore, if we move from hence, I would wish your Lordship to settle that point.’

Hood gave sympathetic acknowledgement without, however, issuing any decisive clarification of the sort Nelson wanted. Hood had already had too many difficulties with the army without inviting more. The idea of conceding clearly defined authority to Nelson as his man there may have raised fear in Hood of Nelson’s impatience and impetuosity provoking trouble with the army.

For Hood defeat at Toulon had been followed, after much uncertainty, by triumph at Fiorenzo and Bastia. Towards Calvi all now directed their attention. There was no basis for doubting another imminent triumph there as well. Hood was in poor health and expected soon to be going home. He would wish to return expecting the sort of salutation and honours that these successes would ensure. He now possibly believed that Nelson’s energetic and impulsive bravado needed to be subdued. Hood was by this time certainly aware of the possible loss that might have been suffered had he yielded to Nelson’s early impetuous conviction that Bastia might be won by merely five hundred seamen. Nevertheless, he had benefited in the end from that impetuosity. What Hood’s reputation had gained here he owed to Nelson. Difficult therefore to understand what Hood now officially delivered concerning Nelson’s part at Bastia.

Aboard Victory lying off Bastia, on 22 May Hood wrote his first report, his general order of thanks directly to the participants in the action. It was brief, direct. ‘The commander in chief returns his best thanks to Captain Nelson…as well as to every officer and seaman employed in the reduction of Bastia…’ But when Hood sat down and composed his official report to the Admiralty his tributes were framed differently.

Hood’s report to Admiralty began with particularly fulsome praise for ‘the unremitting zeal, exertion and judicious conduct’ of Colonel Villettes. As for the other army officers, ‘their persevering ardour, and desire to distinguish themselves, cannot be too highly spoken of; and which it will be my pride to remember to the latest period of my life’. Then, ‘Captain Nelson, of His Majesty’s ship Agamemnon, who had the command and direction of the seamen, in landing the guns, mortars and stores; and Captain Hunt, who commanded at the batteries…have an ample claim to my gratitude; as the seamen…’ This praise for Hunt particularly riled Nelson, for Hunt was a protégé of Hood who had made minimal contribution to their success.

Apart from the spareness of the praise in comparison with that which extolled the army officers, for Hood to have so limited Nelson’s part in all of it to that of a mere supervisor of the landing of guns and stores coldly denigrated the whole of Nelson’s extraordinary achievement there, ignored Hood’s own faith in and dependence upon him, dismissed the boldness and endurance that had helped to establish their very presence on the Corsican coast.

Lord Nelson, John Hoppner, c.1805. RNM. The Corsican campaign is often credited as the first in which Nelson rose to prominence within the Royal Navy

Like the others, Nelson saw Hood’s initial congratulatory General Order at once. But it would be several weeks before copies of the Admiralty report reached him. When it did it was to be a jolting shock. Regardless of that brutal insensitivity and lack of consideration, it was nevertheless Hood’s gift of responsibility on Corsica that finally meant everything. For here on Corsica in the first half of 1794 began the remarkable ascendancy in this war of this unique character, Horatio Nelson. So much of what was to mould his greater role in such a determining war was cast here. In Corsica Nelson drew upon himself the sort of command he sought in which to exercise his independence and express the individuality so vital to him. The conquest of Corsica was Nelson’s achievement. Land battle thus arrived before sea battle for Nelson in this war. He had had his first action at sea, a small encounter on the way to Tunis, but what he ardently longed for was to be part of the confrontation between the French and the British navies on that large and decisive scale that might settle the issue on this sea and on the ocean beyond. That was yet distant.

Battle of Tornavento June 22, 1636

As a French-Savoyard army under Duke Victor Amadeus and Marshal Charles de Crequi campaigned in northern Italy, they were attacked on the Ticino, west of Milan at Tornavento, by Spanish Governor Diego Felipe de Guzma’n Marquis de Legane’s. The Spaniards were forced to retreat after fierce fighting and suffered another loss the following year at Monte Baldo (23 June 1636).

1636. Operations in Italy. A combined French-Savoyard army under Victor Amadeus and Marshal Charles de Crequi defeated the Spanish in the hard-fought Battle of Tornavento (June 22). But the duke refused to advance beyond the Ticino against Milan.

Thirty Years War (Franco-Habsburg War)

Franco-Savoyard victory (Tactical)

Franco- Savoyard Army

Commanders: Vittorio-Amedeo I and Marshal de Créqui

Infantry: 8 000  men

Cavalry  ~ 2 500 men

Artilley: ?

Losses ~ 2 000 – 2 500 men

Spanish Army of the State of Milano

Commander: Marques of Leganés

Infantry: 9 000 – 10 000 men

Cavalry ~ 4 000  men

Artillery: 3-5 guns

Losses: 2 000 – 2 500 men

Strategic situation: En 1636, Richelieu and the Duke of Savoy (Vittorio Amedeo I) agreed to launch an offensive on the Spanish Duchy of Lombardia. The 20 of May 1636 the main confederate army started the campaign crossing the river Tarano near the city of Asti. After 2 weeks of march and counter march the allied finally crossed the river Pô at Valenza and marched to the North passing near Novarra and taking the city of Oleggio the 14 of June, with the objective to meet the army of the Duke of Rohan coming from the north. The 16 of June the French Marshal de Créqui, with select corps of 7 000 – 8 000 French troops crossed by surprise the river Ticino at Boffalora [1] at just 40 km of Milano, but without artillery and with a strong Spanish army marching on him, Créqui decided to join the rest of the army. The 20 of June we find Créqui at Somma Lombardo on the east bank of the Ticino, Vittorio Amedeo on the west bank of the Ticino at Varalla Pombia and the Spanish at Boffalora. Next day Créqui turn back to the south to face the Spanish at Tornavento waiting the rest of the army and protecting the ford of Oleggio. The Spanish stopped at Castano Primo and decided to attack first the French before the arrival of the Savoyard army. During the night of the 21 of June we find the French digging a defensive position at Tornavento, the Savoyard building a wood bridge and the Spanish organising their army for the next day.

The French army of Marshal of Créqui took position behind their fortification. The right wing (de Florinville) covers the space between the naviglio grande (a canal), a ditch (fosso di Pamperduto) and Tornavento and had 2 infantry regiments (Pierregourde and de Florinville), a cavalry squadron (Lestang) and a company of Gendarmes (Allencourt). The centre (Marshal of Créqui) was composed of 3 infantry regiments (Sault, Henrichemont and Roquefeuille) and 6 small cavalry squadrons (Cauvisson, Lorraine, Marolles, Bois David, de la Tour and la Ferté) and it was deployed around Tornavento.At last, the left wing (Plessis-Preslin) was composed of the infantry regiment of the Lyonnais, probably 3 cavalry squadrons (Chamblay, Moissac and Palluau-Cléranbaut), 150 carabins (3 companies) and 300 dragoons (Bouillac) and it was deployed behind a ditch (fosso della Cerca near the actual SP 52 Road).

The sabaudian army of Vittorio Amedeo I it is not well know (probably some 1200 horses, 6 000 foots and 10 guns) but the vanguard, who participate to the battle, numbered some 500 horses and 2 000 – 2 500 foots (Regiment of Count Marolles [2] and Regiment Du Cheynex [2]). The rest (including French troops) was near Oleggio guarding the artillery and the luggage or looting the countryside.  In total we have some 10 500 men, for the battle, subdivided in 8 000 foots, 2 000 horses and some 450 carabins/dragoons.

The Spanish army (Marques of Léganez) was organised with an infantry of 4 Spanish battalions (Tercios of Lombardia, Caracena, Mortara and Fijo del mar de Napoles), 2 Italians battalion (Carlo della Gatta and Giulio Cesare Borromeo) and 3 German regiments (Gaspare Visconti, Prince Borso di Modena and Gilles de Haes). The cavalry was composed of companies, of the State of Milano (some 30 companies?), from the Kingdom of Napoles (11 companies), a German regiment with 7 cornets and the 2 guards companies of the Governor of Milano. We must add some companies of dragoons and an artillery battery of 5 guns. The army was deployed with a vanguard (Gerardo Gambacorta) of 5 battalions with some cavalry, an assault brigade of 4 battalions with some cavalry and a strong rearguard (Filippo Spinola-Doria) with most of the cavalry and the dragoons. In total some 9 000 – 10 000 foots and 4 000 cavalry and dragoons.

A): The first action started on the left French flanks when well supported by the artillery the right Spanish wing, under Gambacorta, repulsed the French regiment of Lyonnais and takes their outposts.

B): On the right Spanish wing, with some delays, a powerful brigade of 4 battalions supported by some cavalry companies marched toward the French position, following the Fosso di Pamperduto.

C): On the right Spanish flanks, a counter attack by the French cavalry manages to stop the Spanish killing their commander. Meanwhile the French win time to reorganised their infantry.

D): On the left wing, the Spanish infantry slip to the left to attack the French right wing.

E): Disorganised by the death of Gambacorta and the ditch of Cerca, the Spanish cannot resist the attack of the reorganised French infantry and retire to their previous position.

F): Mean time the Spanish of the left wing dislodged the French from their position. The intervention of first Savoyard troops crossing the Ticino, and some French cavalry save the situation of that wing.

G): The battles expand to the entire front, degenerating in a series of partial and confused attacks and counter attacks. But the good resistance of the French at Tornavento and the intervention of the Savoyard vanguard blocked all Spanish progress. Cavalry of both side acted to help their infantry but the lack of space did not permit conclusive charges.

H): After several hours of heavy fighting, men of both armies suffered the effect of the losses, of the tiredness and of the lack of water (“sin àrbol, y con falta de agua” (“treeless, and lacking water”)). With the night coming, the Spanish commander decided that he could not ask more to his men and started to retire, with the protection of the rearguard, behind Castano Primo to reorganise his army. The exhausted confederate army did not follow them and stay on their positions.

Balance: In one day probably more than 3 000 men died, the Spanish abandoned the battlefield and retired to Boffalora, meantime the confederate army remained some days near Tornavento but decided to turn back to theirs bases, Torino for Vittorio Amedeo and Casale for Créqui. For the confederate army, little have been achieved with this battle and the invasion of Lombardia turn to be a complete failure. In 1637, the Spanish will retake the imitative of the operation taking the fortress of Nizza Monferrato. Worst for the confederate, Vittorio Amedeo will die in 1637, starting a civil war for the control of the duchy of Savoy.

[1] Note: Following Visconti the crossing was more to the north between in the ford of Oleggio and Boffalora was attack by a strong reconnaissance squadron.

[2] Note: Some authors called them Savoie and Montferrat, even if officially they had these names not until 1664.



Medieval Prints by Graham Turner

Although firmly rooted and fairly well developed in the Rhineland, Franconia, Lorraine (the old Lotharingia) and Burgundy, feudalism in its widest sense was never as strong in Germany as in, say, France or England, and true knighthood and the customary granting of fiefs was unknown in Germany until the 12th century; the earliest recorded instance of knighting actually dates to 1146.

During the period under review Germany was basically a confederation of petty states led by princely families of tribal origin, of whom very few held their Lands as vassals of the crown. In the first half of this era, therefore, the king (or Emperor) had to depend almost entirely on the goodwill of these autonomous princes and dukes for military support, who recognised Imperial authority only when they deemed it expedient to do so. Their principalities had largely evolved from once-independent territories and sub-kingdoms (principally Saxony, Thuringia, Burgundy, Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia) and the princes continued to associate themselves with the ethnic origins of their lands. Without their support the Emperor had practically no army, and therefore no power, at all, and it was as a result of this dependence that the Imperial throne became elective in the second half of the 13th century, the most powerful princes becoming Kürfursten or ‘Electors’ whose one concern was effectively to ensure their own autonomy by the maintenance of a weak monarchy. Some idea of the princes’ military potential can be got from the fact that at a Diet (parliament) in Mainz in 1235, where they were nearly all present, their personal retinues are recorded to have totalled 12,000 knights. An individual prince might easily raise several hundred knights (mostly ministeriales, for which see below), the Archbishop of Cologne reputedly fielding 500 in 1161.

Other than for the king’s expedition to Rome to be crowned (the expeditio italica, after 1135 called the expeditio roma or Romfahrt, later Romzug) only the princes of the church -the abbots, bishops and archbishops- were actually obliged to render him military service, since they alone owed their positions to the crown, having been invested with their various estates and offices by the king; therefore it was on them that he relied predominantly for troops. In 1167, 1174 and 1176, for example, German armies operating in Italy under Frederick I Barbarossa consisted almost entirely of church contingents. However, the obligations of ecclesiastical princes differed from those of feudal vassals; with them it was more a case of administering an Imperial estate and, when necessary, financing contingents of troops from the proceeds. Sometimes such proceeds were inadequate to pay for the requisite troops and it was not uncommon for the church to have to mortgage or pawn property and estates in order to raise men. Most German bishops were therefore soldiers first and churchmen second and many even commanded Imperial armies in the field, despite the fact that for most of this era there was bitter enmity between Empire and papacy. In 1257 Richard of Cornwall wrote to his brother, King Henry III of England, about the ‘mettlesome and warlike archbishops there are in Germany. It would be a fine thing for you if you could create such archbishops in England.’

It was Frederick I (who added the ‘Holy’ to ‘Roman Empire’) who first sought to fully reorganise German feudalism on the model of France. Realising the necessity of pulling together the heterogenous elements that made up the Empire, Frederick made a concerted effort to ensure that all princes, both ecclesiastical and lay, were tied to the throne by bonds of vassalage, and by 1180 the structure of the feudal hierarchy had been firmly established; the princes and dukes were now tenants-in-chief (the princes of the church inevitably taking precedence over lay princes), with their vassals obliged to perform military service as knights. Where previously the king bad been able to solicit military aid from his nobility chiefly only by cash payments, the late-12th century saw them serving for a standard period of6 weeks per year, in addition to which, after an interval, their vassals could be called upon for further service of another 6 weeks at the expense of the tenant-in-chief or crown. Unfortunately after Frederick’s death in 1190 his successors were unable to maintain their hold on the nobility, his grandson Frederick II (1214-50, best known for his Sicilian and Italian exploits) issuing in 1231 the ‘Statute of Favour of the Princes’ which granted lay and ecclesiastical princes alike absolute autonomy within their lands and total freedom from royal interference; assorted exemptions from and limitations on obligatory military service followed (Bohemians and Saxons, for instance, could commute their obligation to participate in the Romfahrt by means of a token cash payment). Thereafter the German monarchy was purely elective and royal authority Little more than nominal. Rudolf of Habsburg (1273-91) appears to have been at least partially successful in forcing the nobility back into submission, though be bad to put dissidents down by force on a number of occasions and destroyed some 70 or more castles in the process. Nor were his achievements particularly lasting.

Since the princes were of dubious loyalty, and because the German peasantry were basically forbidden to bear arms by the late-12th century, it was inevitable that some reliance should be placed on mercenary troops (principally Germans), though they were apparently never employed in particularly large numbers. As early as the late-11th century it had been suggested to Henry IV (by Benzo of Alba) that mercenaries, paid for by a form of scutage, should replace the feudal or semi-feudal muster, and the suggestion was revived following the failure of Henry V’s French campaign of 1124and again after the decisive defeat of the Imperialists under Otto IV at Bouvines in 1214. Certainly Frederick I had depended on Brabanson mercenaries in Italy in 1166-67 (5-800 men, or perhaps 1,500 including Flemish mercenaries too) and 1174-75 (commanded by the Archbishop of Mainz), where they gained a morale ascendancy over the Italians, who were scared to death of them (or, rather, of their reputation); such Brabanzonen were only actively employed within Germany itself once, in Saxony in 1179 by Archbishop Philip von Heinsberg of Cologne, who fielded as many as 4,000 mercenaries, cavalry and infantry together, of whom the Brabansons constituted the latter. The Emperors themselves tended to rely heavily on mercenaries in their personal retinues to compensate for the indifference of their vassals; for a crusading enterprise of 1196-98 Henry VI personally raised a contingent of as many as 6,000 mercenary troops, 1,500 of them knights and a further 1,500 being esquires. Many such troops were paid with money-fiefs. Hungarians too were sometimes employed, about 600 horse-archers being recorded in an army raised in 1158, while as many as 14,000 are supposed to have been present under their king in Rudolf’s army at Marchfeld 120 years later.

Another considerable – and unique – element of the Imperial army (and of the ecclesiastical contingents in particular) was supplied by ministeriales (German Dienscleuten), a class of ‘unfree’ knights. These appeared in the first half of the 10th century, were only first introduced on a large scale by Conrad II (1024-39), when they were much used for royal garrisons. They were initially nonnoble freemen administering fiefs without actually holding them as vassals, and they could be granted by one lord to another, leased out as mercenaries, or even sold.

The building of fortresses was one of the duties of the levy, particularly in the Marches. Henry the Fowler (919-936, founder of the dynasty), introduced a system where every ninth man lived in a fortified town, helping to build and maintain it, while the other 8 continued their agricultural chores and stored one third of their produce within the town, taking refuge there themselves during Slav or Magyar raids. These men were lower-class vassals, sometimes referred to as agrarii milites, who were in many ways the forerunners of the mediaeval German ministeriales, unfree knights.

It was Conrad II (1024-1039) who actually introduced ministeriales on a large scale. A ministerialis is best described as an unfree man in possession of a benefice and performing the same military service as a free, feudal tenant would. They appear to have originally evolved as a result of church lands being obliged to supply feudal troops in the same way as the nobility had to; so as not to incur a loss of income by granting the land to free vassals to fulfil these obligations, unfree men were granted such lands instead and were obliged to supply the requisite military duties while at the same time, being unfree, not being permitted any of the benefits or income of a free vassal. This practice became widespread in Germany.

Many vassals therefore bad no need to involve themselves in subinfeudation, since they could utilise ministeriales to satisfy their military obligations without loss of land or revenue, and it was this aspect that made them particularly popular with the church. However, ministeriales often became important Imperial officials so that their status steadily improved. As early as 1126 we find ministeriales being made knights and by the mid-century they had to be paid for service beyond their master’s own domains. Many were by this time becoming powerful and wealthy enough to be considered capable of holding lands on their own account, so that their offices were subsequently convened into feudal possessions. Their ability to hold property and thereby have vassals of their own inevitably broke down and blurred the original distinction between the ‘unfree’ ministerialis and the free knight (to the disgust of the latter), one powerful ministerialis of Frederick I’s reign, Werner von Bolanden, even being reported as holding 17 castles and allegedly being owed the service of as many as 1,100 men-at-arms. By the mid-13th century when, in South German contingents at least, as much as 95 per cent or more of an army could be composed of ministeriales – they were indistinguishable from the nobility, a considerable proportion of the latter by then being of ministerialis origin, including even dukes, counts and bishops.

Some ministeriales appear to have served as infantry but most evidence indicates that they were cavalrymen. The same applies to the Sariants, or sergeants, who first appear in the 12th century. Nethertheless infantry were an important element of German armies. Many were still supplied by the Heerbann or its equivalent, the traditional Germanic levy of all able-bodied freemen which lasted up until the 13th century, though from the late-12th century the lower classes were being steadily excluded from military service. It lasted longest in the north and east, in Saxony, Thuringia and Bavaria; Saxon and Thuringian infantry were present in strength at Bouvines in 1214 and fought in nearly every important campaign of the 11th and 12thcenturies.

The standard role of infantry in this period was of an almost entirely defensive nature, an attitude which remained prevalent until the beginning of the 14th century. They were either assigned to the cavalry units or organised separately, usually as close-order phalanxes. They could be drawn up before, behind, between or on the flanks of the cavalry depending on circumstances.

To strengthen the infantry and boost their morale many commanders chose to dismount at least a percentage of their knights, particularly in the late-11th and 12th centuries; this is especially true of English, Norman and German armies. Prior to the 13th century, in fact, German knights are recorded in a number of contemporary sources as better at fighting on foot than on horse. The 12thcentury Byzantine chronicler Cinnamus records them as being at their best fighting on foot with the sword, comparing them to the French who were better on horseback with the lance. William of Apulia, describing Swabian knights fighting on foot at Civitate in 1053, says they were ‘better with the sword than the lance since they are incapable of handling their horses or thrusting vigorously [with the lance]. But they excel with the sword.’ At Damascus in the Second Crusade we even find German knights dismounting to charge, William of Tyre telling us that this ‘was the custom of the Germans when circumstances obliged them to use it.’ Conversely, we are told that French knights were of little value on foot, while a source ofc. 1120 describes Breton knights as 7 times more effective mounted than they were when dismounted.

Other infantry were provided by town militias from the 11th century onwards, these participating in most of the civil wars which racked the reigns of every German king of this era.

They were obliged to go to war when ever called upon to do so by their sovereign (ie, the ruling prince, duke, bishop etc of the state in which the town stood, which in the case of Reichsunmittelbare towns-those under direct royal control- was the king or Emperor himself). In most cases, however, they were not expected to do much more than defend their own town walls, except in dire circumstances when they might be called upon to serve in the field locally (this obligation frequently being reduced in the 13th century so that service could not be called for further than a half-day’s march from the militia’s home town). Hence the reliance on Italian, Brabancon and other indigenous or mercenary infantry when campaigning outside Germany.

Auxiliaries were also employed, Magyars, Poles, Wends and other Slavs all being recorded in the 10th and 1th centuries. Even Danish auxiliaries are sometimes mentioned, by the mid-11th century apparently sometimes serving as cavalry As an indication of the numbers of troops available, 32 legiones were mustered for an attack on the Capetian Hugh the Great in 946, though these included Carolingian French and Flemish units, while at Lechfield in 955 there were 8 legiones, probably a more usual size for an army. Otto II, campaigning in Italy in 982, requested reinforcements of 2,080 feudal cavalry from Lotharingia, Bavaria, Franconia and Swabia, 1,482 of whom were supplied by ecclesiastical vassals; this may very well have been after his defeat by the Arabs at Cotrone, where he is recorded to have lost 4,000 men killed plus many more captured. In the mid-11th century Henry II had adequate troops to promise a Milanese rebel the loan of 4,000 knights (probably ministeriales).

Italia (1880)

The frontal view shows the flying bridge, the elevated forward control and navigation house, the sponsons, and the rounded hull shape.

From this deck plan the redoubt’s diagonal arrangement is clear. There was an armoured deck just below waterline level, but no citadel or side armour.

A novel battleship design, with four very large guns and no side armour, in many ways Italia was a forerunner of the battlecruiser. For a few years it held the prestige position of the largest and fastest battleship in the world.

The Kingdom of Italy was declared in 1861 and from the start it had difficult relations with the French and the Austrians. For Italy with its long coasts and numerous islands, a naval force was a prime necessity, and by 1866 it had fought one of the first ‘modern’ sea battles, against the Austrian Navy at Lissa in the Adriatic Sea. That was a defeat despite superior numbers on the Italian side, and drove the Italians to further expansion of their fleet.

Fast and powerful

Laid down at Castellamare in 1877 and launched in 1880, Italia took Brin’s revolutionary design of Duilio (1876) to an extreme. The brief was for a very fast ship, heavily-armed, which could also carry a large number of troops (at the time, France and Italy were on the verge of war over Tunis, on the south coast of the Mediterranean Sea). As with Duilio, the guns were mounted in echelon, but the main armament of Italia and its sister ship Lepanto was of even heavier calibre, four 432mm (17in) guns each weighing 93 tonnes (103 tons), firing shells of 907kg (2000lb). The guns were mounted in a huge barbette of oval shape extending beyond the sides, forming an armoured redoubt set diagonally across the hull. Unlike the British Inflexible, it had a high freeboard, 7.6m (25ft), offering more of a target to an enemy. The sides carried no armour, but Italia relied on the power of its guns, and its high speed, to avoid attack. Six funnels in sets of three, linked by high catwalks with the conning tower, a lofty central mast, and a large curved crane on the afterdeck, gave Italia a unique appearance. One of the few more traditional features was an ‘admiral’s walk’ around the curved stern.


The ship was built largely of steel, rather than iron. Internally it had the now-standard armoured deck, curving upwards slightly from the sides 1.83m (6ft) below the waterline, but above it a cellular raft ran the entire length of the ship. The space between them was lined laterally with cork-filled watertight cells separating the hull plating from an inner cofferdam on each side, and two transverse levels, one of empty cells, with coal storage space below. A double bottom was also fitted.

One novel feature of Duilio, not maintained on the new ship, was a stern compartment for a torpedo boat, secured by watertight doors. Italia also had space to hold an infantry division of 10,000 men and its equipment for the relatively short Mediterranean crossing. The main guns could be independently trained and aimed, but as with other very large guns of the time, the rate of fire was slow, no more than one round every four or five minutes.

Construction of Italia and Lepanto stretched Italy’s new warship-building resources, and the Italian government did not proceed to enlarge its battlefleet further. But the size, speed and general innovation of these Italian capital ships had a major impact on ship design and naval planning in both the British and the French navies. Sir Nathaniel Barnaby, Britain’s chief naval designer, observed that ‘We must … regard the first-class ironclad as … being of over 14,000 tons if we accept the reasonings of the Italian architects and the expression of their ideas in the Italia and Lepanto’. In the mid-1880s British designers were still mulling over the kind of ship ‘most suitable for meeting the Italia’. In this way the Italian contribution was to push the greater naval powers towards greater size.


Between 1905 and 1908 Italia was rebuilt, losing two funnels and with the tall single mast replaced by two, forward and aft of the funnels. By this time battleship development had caught up and moved on. Improved armour had disproved Brin’s theory that gun-power had made side-armour pointless, and the formidable guns were sadly out of date. By the 1890s the ship really ranked with armoured cruisers. The secondary armament was changed and reduced in quantity. In 1909–10 it was used for torpedo training.

Still in commission during World War I, but renamed as Stella d’Italia, it was based at Taranto and Brindisi for gunnery training until 1917, when it was disarmed and transferred to the mercantile marine as a grain transport. It was returned to the Regia Marina in 1921, but was almost immediately sold for scrapping.



Length 124.7m (409ft), Beam 22.5m (74ft), Draught 8.7m (28ft 8in), Full load 10.1m (33ft)

Displacement 15,900 tonnes (15,654 tons)

Propulsion 24 boilers, 2 vertical compound engines developing 11,780kW (15,797hp), twin screws


4 432mm (17in) breech-loading guns of 93 tonnes (103 tons), 7 150mm (5.9in) and 4 119mm (4.7in) guns, 4 356mm (14in) torpedo tubes


Redoubt 483mm (19in), Boiler uptakes 406mm (16in), Conning tower 102mm (4in), Deck 102–76mm (4–3in)

Range 9260km (5000nm) at 10 knots

Speed 17.8 knots

Complement 701

The Road to Rome

By late spring 1943, the Americans and British and their Commonwealth and colonial Allies had won the war in North Africa. The opening of a Second Front in northwest Europe was still a distant possibility, and the victory in Africa left the Allies in the Mediterranean with a choice of where next to fight the Germans. Italy? The Balkans? Greece and the Aegean? The war had to be fought somewhere: Allied planners estimated that a possible D-day in France was still a year away. The triumvirate of leaders—Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill—were at odds over where to fight next. The Russian victory at Stalingrad in February 1943, and the British triumph at El Alamein, had proved to be turning points. The preceding year in the Pacific, the Americans’ aircraft carrier groups had broken the invincibility of the Japanese navy at the Battle of Midway, only six months after Pearl Harbor.

Churchill argued that control of the Mediterranean meant control of Europe, and he wanted England, its armies, and the Royal Navy to have it. In the telegrams that the three leaders exchanged daily, early summer 1943 was devoted to deciding how the war in south and southeastern Europe would be fought. Control of Italy, with its 4,750 miles of coastline commanding every shipping lane in the middle of the Mediterranean, and thus access to the Suez Canal and India, was crucial for the British. It would also decide how military operations in neighboring countries in southern Europe, like Yugoslavia, Austria, and southern France, could be carried out. These in turn would dictate the postwar map of the northern Mediterranean.

A liberated Sicily and Italy would enable the Allies to dominate the Mediterranean sea-lanes and the air bases within striking distance of Germany and the whole of southern Europe. The Allies had three possible courses of action. First, invade  Sicily and the Italian mainland, and fight from bottom to top, thus tying down hundreds of thousands of German troops who could otherwise be deployed against a forthcoming invasion of northwestern Europe, or else used in Russia. Second, they could stage seaborne landings at the very top of Italy, on the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts, fight across the country, and cut off the whole mainland and the German and Italian forces in it. Third, they could negotiate an armistice and surrender with the Italians, move fast, and invade and occupy the country before the Germans had time to reinforce it from the north. Having occupied Italy, the Allies could then race up the spine of the country toward the Alps, outflanking and trapping German divisions by a series of leapfrogging amphibious landings on both Adriatic and Mediterranean coastlines. They chose the first option. And at first it all went according to plan.

Meeting at Casablanca in January 1943, the Americans and British argued about whether Sicily or Sardinia should be the first target. Sicily won. In Operation Husky, begun on the night of July 9, 1943, the British 8th Army under General Bernard Montgomery and the American 7th Army under Lieutenant General George S. Patton launched amphibious and airborne assaults across the southern and eastern coasts of Sicily. It was the largest venture of its kind in the war to date, and was successful, although many of the problems that could beset a combined amphibious, naval, and airborne operation did so. Husky was preceded by a series of diversions, the most imaginative of which was code-named “Operation Mincemeat.” The Allies were obviously desperate to persuade the Germans and Italians the landings were planned elsewhere, for as Winston Churchill had said after the success of the North Africa campaign, “Everyone but a bloody fool would know it’s Sicily next.”

So the Allies devised a cunning plan. The dead body of a homeless Welshman from north London was painstakingly disguised to resemble the corpse of a British Royal Marines officer. The scheme pretended that he had drowned after an air crash while carrying secret documents destined for General Harold Alexander, commander in chief of the Mediterranean theater. The body, with a fictitious identity—“Major Martin”—was dumped overboard by a British Royal Navy submarine off the southern coast of neutral Spain. A leather briefcase was chained to it, containing papers purporting to show that the Allies intended to invade Sardinia or Greece. A local fisherman found the body after it washed ashore, and it was passed to the Spanish navy, which in turn allowed German military intelligence in Madrid to copy the documents. Hitler fell for it. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was transferred to Greece to command German operations there against the supposed Allied invasion and, most important, three German tank divisions were transferred from Russia and France to Greece, just before the strategically crucial armored battle at Kursk in the southern Ukraine in 1943.

But the actual invasion of Sicily, which began on the night of July 9, got off to a discouraging start. Because of strong winds and inexperienced pilots of the 147 gliders carrying the first wave of British airborne assault teams, only 12 reached their correct targets and 69 crashed into the sea. American paratroopers were scattered across southeastern Sicily. The initial landings were almost unopposed, but within hours the Germans and Italians counterattacked with tanks. The Italian army fought much harder than expected, and the British, overconfident after beating them in North Africa, found themselves out-fought by them, albeit briefly, on two occasions. But then the weather swung in the Allies’ favor: the Italians and Germans had assumed that nobody would attack in the bad weather that prevailed before the attack, and so they were slow to react. The enormous dominance in Allied air power hindered the German tanks’ ability to move easily in the open Sicilian countryside. Using their infantry and tanks together, the Allies—who were numerically outnumbered almost two to one—swung north, west, and east across Sicily, pushing the Germans into the northeastern corner toward the Strait of Messina. The Germans fought a series of bitter rearguard actions as they withdrew toward the port of Messina, from where they could rescue their troops back onto the toe of the mainland.

For the Allies, the fighting was characterized by several factors they would encounter on the mainland. The combat was dominated by the physical terrain and the Germans’ exemplary command of the fighting withdrawal. Both sides effectively deployed armor and infantry together: the Germans used lightning counterattacks to keep the Allies off guard as their main force withdrew from one defensive position to the next. It was to prove a precursor to the fighting on the mainland. There was also the heat, dust, mosquitoes, the lack of water, the beauty of the countryside, the two-thousand-year history, and the rural poverty.

The fighting in Sicily introduced the Allied soldiers and their commanders to a new German opponent, which was to dominate the strategic and operational dictats of their lives for the next eighteen months. Luftwaffe Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring was in charge of the German Army Command South. He was a fifty-eight-year-old veteran of the First World War who had commanded the German air forces during the invasion of Poland and France, and during Operation Barbarossa in Russia. He made several decisive observations in Sicily. Without German support, the Italians would collapse, although they were around 230,000 in number. So he decided to evacuate his 60,000 Germans back to the mainland and save them for the defense of southern Italy. He did this in a series of tactically brilliant fighting withdrawals, using the geography on land and sea to his advantage. More than 50,000 Germans escaped from Sicily by August, including two elite paratroop divisions, along with nearly 4,500 vehicles. Kesselring achieved this despite the fact that the Allies had command of land, sea, and air.

The campaign lasted four weeks. The British and Americans lost around 25,000 killed, wounded, missing, or captured, and the Germans some 20,000. The Italians surrendered and lost around 140,000, the majority of whom were taken prisoner. Fighting was brutal. But after a morning spent observing combat in a peach orchard, a British war artist said that he couldn’t decide which was more compelling: the physical beauty of the island or the visceral violence of infantry fighting. The combat casualties on the American side were exceeded only by the number of soldiers who caught malaria, from the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, breeding in the ponds, swamps, and drainage ditches that crisscrossed Sicily.

The Allies ran head-on into the world of Sicilian organized crime, and into la dolce vita too. In one key town, American troops fought alongside Italian Mafia gunmen masquerading as partisans, after their battalion commander agreed with the local capo that political and material control of the area would revert to him once the Germans had retreated. The geography was new too. Suddenly, after the throat-scorching heat and arid lack of compromise that were the sand and rocks of North Africa, here were the southern gardens of the old Roman Empire. The idiosyncratic color of war was also far from absent.

A unit of British special forces was the first to liberate the eastern port of Augusta. They outfought and outmaneuvered a numerically superior German unit, which withdrew toward a viaduct above the town. The British soldiers then liberated not just the bar in the local brothel but also the wardrobes of the prostitutes who worked in it. When an English company of soldiers arrived to link up with the Special Raiding Squadron, they found a small group of rugged, ragged men in special forces berets, captured German weapons slung over their shoulders, some wearing a mix of combat uniforms and women’s negligees and underwear. One was playing an upright piano under the orange trees in the town square, surrounded by the others, who were drinking Campari and singing.

But then the Italians made a move that very nearly caught the Germans by surprise. In secret, they had negotiated an armistice with the British and Americans: it was signed on September 3 at a military base at Cassibile outside Syracuse in southern Sicily. Italy’s Fascist infrastructure, under the twenty-year dictatorship of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, was by now on the ropes. The country, badly defeated in North Africa and at sea in the Mediterranean, was exhausted by war. Il Duce’s lavish architectural designs, feckless colonial wars, and huge public spending had bankrupted Italy. His cloying, sycophantic allegiance with Hitler had motivated him to dispatch 235,000 Italian troops of the 8th Army to fight alongside the Germans, Romanians, and Hungarians around Stalingrad. They were badly equipped, with weapons that, at best, semifunctioned in the Russian winter, and they had no suitable clothing for the subzero temperatures. In seven months, from August 1942 to February 1943, 88,000 were killed or went missing; 34,000 were wounded, many of them with extreme frostbite. And by July 1943, the Italian mainland was already being bombed by the Allies. The country’s predominantly Catholic population was at risk of reprisals if Pope Pius XII spoke out too vociferously about the Germans’ treatment of Europe’s Jews.

So the end, when it came, was draconian. Mussolini was told by the Grand Council of Fascism on July 25, 1943, that not only would his powers be curtailed, but control of the armed forces would be handed over to King Victor Emmanuel and Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio. The former was considered ineffectual; the latter, with a shameful record in World War I, was thought little better than Il Duce. So the next day Mussolini was arrested at Villa Savoia in Rome. The signature of the armistice was effectively a total capitulation of the country’s armed forces. For the Germans, who by chance had intercepted an Allied radio conversation from Sicily about the negotiations, it was a confirmation of what they had feared and expected all along. Their capricious and militarily lackluster allies had done a deal behind their backs.

Fearing that with the Italian army incapacitated, the British and Americans would quickly occupy Italy, the Germans moved as fast as they could and launched Operation Alarich, their plan to occupy Italy. If the Allies had been prepared to cooperate in full with the antifascist Italian resistance before Mussolini was deposed, the British landings in mainland Italy could have taken place unopposed. But British foreign secretary Anthony Eden insisted on a full and unconditional surrender by the Italians. During the 1935 Abyssinian crisis, Mussolini had described Eden, then an undersecretary of state at the Office of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, as “the best dressed fool in Europe.” Eden remembered and smarted at this, and demanded a full and unconditional surrender.

Badoglio was timid and terrified of offending the Germans, so the chance to provide muscular military leadership to the many Italians who would be prepared to resist both Fascists and Germans was lost, and the Allies’ opportunity to join forces with the antifascist partisans was squandered. The Germans’ speedy reaction paid off: while the Allies were still negotiating final terms, and arguing about what should become of Italy’s monarchy, Hitler dispatched nine extra divisions down through the Brenner Pass, eastward from southern France and westward from Yugoslavia. After a short-lived defense by Italians loyal to the king, Rome was occupied by the Germans on September 9, 1943. The Italian army collapsed into three pieces.

Italy Falls Apart

As an Italian army officer, Arrigo Paladini had volunteered for service in Russia in 1941 and fought near Stalingrad. But unlike 88,000 other Italian soldiers in Russia who were killed or taken prisoner, Paladini made it home alive, with nothing worse than a bad case of frostbite in one foot. It meant that for the rest of his life he could hardly run. When the armistice was signed at Cassibile in September 1943, Arrigo Paladini was still a twenty-six-year-old second lieutenant in an artillery unit of the Italian army, based near Padua in northern Italy.

As soon as he heard news of the armistice, broadcast from Allied-occupied Algeria by the American major general Dwight Eisenhower, and then on the BBC and Radio Italy, Paladini quickly decided which side he was on. Fellow soldiers in the Italian army faced four choices: desert and go home; follow the orders of superior officers and face detention in squalid camps to await the eventual arrival of the Allies, or possible execution by the Germans; remain loyal to the deposed Mussolini and his Fascist regime; or join a partisan group. As a confirmed antifascist, he felt his only choice was to move south and enlist with a group operating in the Abruzzo region, which lies between the Apennines and the country’s eastern seaboard on the Adriatic.

Tens of thousands of former Italian soldiers, accompanied by civilians who hated the German occupation of their country, formed partisan groups. Loosely aligned along political lines, they were looking to the future while fighting in the present. The Germans were the immediate enemy, their defeat the immediate goal. But regional political control at the end of the war was the ultimate objective. Paladini’s group was allied to the Christian Democrats: its main rivals in the Abruzzo area were Communists. It started life at a meeting in an ilex grove above a village, and at the very beginning had around twenty men, with four Carcano rifles, two submachine guns, and a few Beretta pistols, captured from the police, among them. Paladini took the code name of “Eugene.”

After being deposed, Mussolini had been put under the guard of a force of two hundred carabinieri, Italian paramilitary police officers who had remained loyal to the king. They hid the former dictator and his mistress, Clara Petacci, on the small Mediterranean island of La Maddalena, off Sardinia. After the Germans infiltrated an Italian-speaking agent onto the island, and then flew over it in a Heinkel He 111 taking aerial photographs, Mussolini was hurriedly moved.

They took him to the Hotel Campo Imperatore, a skiing resort in the Apennine mountains, high up on the plateau of the Gran Sasso and accessible only by cable car. Here he spent his time in his bedroom, eating in the deserted restaurant surrounded by carabinieri guards, and taking walks on the bare, deserted mountainside outside the hotel. Hitler, meanwhile, had been planning.

In September 1943, he ordered an Austrian colonel in the Waffen-SS, Otto Skorzeny, to come up with a plan to rescue Mussolini, and to assemble a group of men to do it. Thus was born Operation Eiche, or Oak. Skorzeny was colorful, charismatic, and austere, and one of Germany’s foremost practitioners of commando and antiguerrilla warfare. As a teenager growing up in Vienna in the 1920s depression, he once complained to his father that he had never tasted butter. Best get used to going without, replied his father. Skorzeny was a skilled fencer too, and one cheek bore the scar of a dueling schmiss, or blow from an opponent’s blade.5 By 1943 he was an officer in the Waffen-SS with a hard-earned reputation for success in counterinsurgency operations in France, Holland, the Balkans, and Russia. He commanded the newly formed SS commando unit Sonderverband Friedenthal, and with paratroopers from the German Luftwaffe, he rescued Mussolini without firing a shot.

The two hundred Italian carabinieri protecting Il Duce surrendered after Skorzeny and his assault team landed by glider on the top of the plateau next to the Imperatore. Mussolini, in a black homburg and overcoated against the autumnal Apennine chill, was flown to Rome—with a stop in Berlin to be greeted by Hitler—in a light aircraft. Then he returned to northern Italy, where he created the Italian Socialist Republic, a puppet Fascist state that the Germans drew out within the territory they occupied. It became known as the Salò Republic, from the northern Italian town in which it was headquartered. So with Mussolini now in his small Fascist statelet, Germany occupying Italy, and the Allies arriving on the mainland, Paladini and his small band got to work.

The Arguing Allies

By the time the Americans landed on the beaches at Salerno, south of Rome, in September 1943, the Allies had just lost one of their more capable generals. The irascible, direct, but tactically effective battlefield commander Lieutenant General George Patton had led the U.S. 7th Army in the invasion of Sicily. He had no time for soldiers under his command who complained of suffering from “battle fatigue,” or any form of neuropsychiatric combat-related stress. At the beginning of August 1943, visiting American military hospitals in Sicily, he assaulted and abused two soldiers who were claiming to be affected by fatigue. Army medical corpsmen had diagnosed at least one, if not both, of them to be in the early stages of malaria, alternating between high fever and shivering fits, with attendant paranoia, hallucinations, nausea, and vomiting. It is questionable that either of them knew what he was saying.6 Patton slapped both of them, kicked one in the behind, and threatened to shoot the other. News of the incident mushroomed, and despite there being as much support for Patton as criticism over the incident, he was sidelined from combat command for several months as the 7th Army was split up. His successor was a general who would influence the Allies’ strategy as much as Albert Kesselring, though in different ways.

Generals Mark Clark and Harold Alexander

Lieutenant General Mark Clark was a brave and ambitious staff commander who had risen fast through the ranks of the American officer corps. Born in 1896, his father was a career soldier in the U.S. Army; his mother, an army wife, was the daughter of Romanian Jews. He grew up on a series of army posts, joined the army in 1913 at age seventeen, and graduated from West Point in 1917 as a second lieutenant, 110th out of a class of 139. In the manner in which promotion often works in wartime, he was a captain five months later, before being wounded in France later that year fighting in the Vosges mountains. He remained in the military between the wars, holding a variety of staff appointments, at which he excelled, and was quickly promoted. By 1942, he was a major general and deputy commander in chief under Eisenhower in North Africa. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by his friend and superior, General Eisenhower, after the successful completion of Operation Flagpole in October 1942.

The Allies were determined that the French army in Tunisia and Algeria not oppose the landings code-named “Operation Torch,” the invasion of North Africa. A group of pro-Allied senior officers from the pro-German Vichy French government, based in Tunisia, had indicated that they would be able to persuade the French forces in that country not to resist an Allied invasion. Along with a group of senior officers and three British commandos, Clark was sent to meet them. The group flew by B-17 Flying Fortress to Gibraltar and then boarded the British Royal Navy submarine HMS Seraph. (This vessel would later drop the fake body of “Major Martin” off the coast of southern Spain during Operation Mincemeat.) Clark spent three days ashore in Tunisia, the mission was a success, and senior French officers announced that when Allied troops came ashore in North Africa, they, the French, would arrange a cease-fire. Eisenhower was delighted. It showed Mark Clark’s diplomatic flexibility and powers of persuasion and command, and added to his staff capability. By November 1942, Clark was the youngest lieutenant general in the U.S. military.

In January 1943, he took over command of America’s first field army of World War II—the 5th Army in Italy. Eisenhower was an admirer, and Clark was certainly brave in a mildly reckless way, but he had a reputation for being vainglorious and ambitious. Neither of these were unnatural or surprising qualities in a West Point cadet who had finished near the bottom of his class yet had risen so quickly in the military. Clark was also a classic product of the political economics of 1930s America, a country that was becoming a world superpower and where post-Depression industrial strength restored much of the people’s confidence. It was a country where merit, personal drive, and ambition went hand in hand. Clark was not lacking in of any of these, and he found that war and high command provided the fuse for this volatile trio of qualities.

The commander of the 15th Army Group, which contained the British 8th and American 5th Armies, was General Harold Alexander. The son of an earl, he was educated at Harrow, one of England’s leading private schools. He joined the Irish Guards in 1911, after briefly considering becoming an artist. Unlike so many of his generation, he survived the First World War, where he fought on the Somme, and was decorated for gallantry three times. Britain’s leading balladeer of Empire, Rudyard Kipling, arranged for his severely nearsighted son, John, to serve in Alexander’s battalion at the Battle of Loos in 1915, where he was killed. Afterward, he wrote that “it is undeniable that Colonel Alexander had the gift of handling the men on the lines to which they most readily responded … His subordinates loved him, even when he fell upon them blisteringly for their shortcomings; and his men were all his own.”

Alexander served in India between the wars, and in 1937 was promoted to major general, the youngest in the British Army. After Dunkirk in 1940 and service in England, in 1942 he was dispatched to Burma to lead the army’s retreat to India. Recalled to the Western Desert by Churchill, he led the Allied advance across North Africa after the battle of El Alamein, and then took command of the 15th Army Group, reporting to Eisenhower. The British diplomat David Hunt, who served as an intelligence officer in North Africa, Italy, and Greece, was, after the war, on the British Committee of Historians of the Second World War. He considered Alexander the leading Allied general of the war. He quotes the American general Omar Bradley as saying that he was “the outstanding general’s general of the European war.” But despite this, he had an uneasy relationship with Mark Clark, who found him too reserved.

In September 1943, the main body of the two Allied armies landed at Salerno, south of Naples, on Operation Avalanche. Two other British landings took place in Calabria and at Taranto, on the toe and heel, respectively, of Italy. A deception operation code-named “Boardman” coincided with it, in which the British Special Operations Executive leaked faked plans to invade the Balkans via the Dalmatian Adriatic coast. The plan was successful, and these fell into the hands of the Germans in Yugoslavia. Winston Churchill was, in the words of an American staff officer, “obsessed with invading the Balkans,” part of his master plan to preempt a postwar Russian occupation of territory in southern Europe that Churchill saw as rightfully European, not Soviet.

Salerno was as far north as the Allies could land in Italy while still retaining fighter cover from Sicily. The advance bogged down. American troops that managed to break out of the Salerno bridgehead headed eastward instead of north; they tried to link up with American, British, Polish, Canadian, and Indian troops that were advancing northwest toward Rome from their landing grounds at the bottom of Italy. The linkup failed. The mountainous geography of the southern Apennines dictated that an advance to seize the main access routes into the outskirts Rome would have to cross three key rivers, then force its way up the valley of a fourth, the Liri, flowing from the mountains that lay to the south of the capital. Kesselring had anticipated this. The high ground that dominated these river crossings and the main roads were controlled by German artillery, antitank weapons, and infantry. Looming over the entrance to the Liri valley itself was a huge mountain, which had a large ancient Benedictine monastery on top of it. It was called Monte Cassino.

Trying to push northward and break the gridlock at Salerno, the Allies made a crucial strategic decision that turned into a tactical error. They carried out a huge amphibious landing north of Salerno, on the Mediterranean coast, at a small fishing port called Anzio. It was only thirty miles south of Rome. When 35,000 British and American troops landed there on January 10, 1944, they found themselves completely unopposed, and they took the Germans by surprise. They could have marched on the capital. But the querulous, disagreeing Allied generalship—“the Arguing Allies,” as they were known—came to the Germans’ rescue. Mark Clark placed the operation ashore under the command of an overhesitant American general. The British and Americans were then trapped for five months in an area where German gunners on the surrounding Alban Hills had every square mile mapped onto their fire plans. The fighting for both sides resembled the trench warfare of the Western Front, and one German officer described it as being worse than Stalingrad.

British General Harold Alexander’s 15th Army Group comprised Mark Clark’s 5th Army, with English General Oliver Leese commanding the 8th Army. The Allies’ command structure then took another blow: Montgomery had left for England in December 1943 to help lead the Allied invasion of Normandy. He left behind him what he saw as a situation of strategic and tactical disorganization, particularly by the Americans, that he was subsequently to describe as a “dog’s breakfast.”

Clark’s dislike of Alexander was compounded by his frustration at being the U.S. general who had to implement Alexander’s decision to bomb the monastery of Cassino—although Clark personally furiously disagreed with the order. The British in turn blamed Clark for the near failure of the landings at Salerno. Into this goulash of mutual dissatisfaction, they also stirred another ingredient. Clark had personally assigned the overcautious American major-general John Lucas to command the Anzio bridgehead, and the British, who took enormous casualties there, blamed Lucas for not breaking out of the isolated enclave.

The landing at Anzio had been designed to solve Salerno and the Cassino quagmire. It did neither. What it did do was give Field Marshal Albert Kesselring plenty of time to prepare successive defensive lines north of Rome, to which he could fall back one by one in a series of tactical withdrawals. It allowed him to reinforce the north of the country and establish a major defensive line that led diagonally across north-central Italy exactly where the Apeninne mountains and the Po River valley perfectly suited defensive warfare. It allowed him months to focus his capabilities and to build a string of mutually supporting positions all along this line, which led from the Adriatic coast on the east to the Mediterranean on the west. It was the strongest German defensive position in southern Europe. Kesselring called it Gotenstellung, the Gothic Line.

Italy was now a land of several opposing and cooperating forces. There were the Americans and British, with their multinational corps and divisions from India, Canada, and countries such as South Africa; there were the Germans; there were the Italian partisan groups, with their myriad political allegiances; and there were Italian Fascists loyal to Hitler and Mussolini. The list of protagonists in the fight for one of Western civilization’s oldest lands was as complex and tricky as the terrain and the history of Italy itself.

The War of Austrian Succession in Italy: 1740–1748

In October 1740, Emperor Charles VI died. In his youth he had held title as the Archduke Charles, claimant to the Spanish crown and for whom the Habsburgs waged the War for the Spanish Succession. He left a single heir, his daughter the Archduchess Maria Theresa.

The Holy Roman Empire was an elective monarchy. Charles VI, however, negotiated with the ruling houses of Europe and the magnates of his monarchy to accept Maria Theresa as his legitimate and rightful heir and the next empress. Having secured domestic recognition of his daughter’s right to succeed him, he also acquired international recognition embodied in the document, the Pragmatic Sanction. It did not work. As soon as he died, the Bavarian and Saxon electors competed for the crown; and King Frederick II of Prussia, newly ascended to the throne, rejected Maria Theresa’s legitimacy and invaded Silesia, wealthiest of the Habsburg territories. France did not enter the war, but a French auxiliary corps was dispatched to central Germany in accordance with the Treaty of Westphalia, “to defend German liberties.”

In 1745 the Quadruple Alliance was officially formed by Britain, Austria, the Netherlands, and Saxony through the Treaty of Warsaw. With the death of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VII, the Holy Roman Empire’s throne again became con- tested. Prussian forces were able to maintain their position in Silesia and southern Germany, with Austrian forces unable to oust them. Francis I of Lorraine, the husband of Maria Theresa, was elected Holy Roman emperor, a move opposed by the Prussians and the Bavarians. Despite Prussian successes against Austrian forces, Frederick recognized Francis I’s acquisition of the Habsburg throne in the Peace of Dresden on December 25, 1745, while it was recognized by the Austrians that Silesia was a Prussian province. This agreement ended the Second Silesian War.

In southern Europe the war was characterized by Spanish and Italian engagements, given Bourbon Spanish attempts to acquire territory in Italy, particularly Milan, with Italian states divided in terms of their loyalties. As Austrian forces ousted Spanish forces from northern Italy, they occupied formerly independent Italian states, most notably Genoa. In contrast, in northern Europe, British and Dutch forces engaged French forces in defense of the Austrian Netherlands as well as their own possessions. With a Swedish-Russian settlement made in 1743, Russian forces, allied with Austria, marched from Moscow to the Rhine in 1746. The overwhelmed French and Spanish forces were forced to come to terms or continue fighting against the enlarged coalition. The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, signed on October 18, 1748, formally ended the War of the Austrian Succession. In the end, Prussia was able to retain Silesia at the expense of Austria, which was the trigger of the whole conflict.

The Spanish royal family decided the war offered an opportunity to reclaim Milan. Prince Philip of Bourbon, the youngest son of Philip V and Elizabeth Farnese, needed a crown; and Milan, along with Parma, suited him. A Spanish army landed in Tuscany-a neutral-and marched north to the Padana Plain. Then, Philip V asked his son Charles VII of Naples to return the army he lent him in 1733 to the Neapolitan and Sicilian thrones. Neapolitan troops marched north to join the Spanish army.

France too required allies. They requested Piedmontese permission to cross the Alps and march on Milan, but Charles Emmanuel III did not want to involve his state in this conflict. He realized that, in case of a French and Spanish victory, Piedmont would be caught between the Bourbons. It meant the end of any autonomous policy and of any possible dream of expanding his power in Italy. Moreover, he threatened the approaching Spanish army that if it entered the Padana Plain, his army would its his route to Milan.

At the same time, Britain perceived the precarious situation as a threat to the Balance of Power. Piedmont and Austria were alone against much of Europe, save Russia. London therefore committed its resources to the Habsburg cause. Charles Emmanuel received a £250,000 annual subsidy to keep his army on a war footing. Then, a British squadron entered the Mediterranean under Admiral Matthews, ordered to act in support of Charles Emmanuel. The British ships entered Naples harbor with some five thousand marines. Charles VII knew it. He had no fleet and very few men to defend the city because his army had marched north. So, when Matthews presented an ultimatum: recall all his regiments with the Spanish army, or the city would be shelled and the marines landed, Charles VII had little recourse but to accept the terms.

The defection of Naples eased Charles Emmanuel’s army action against the Spanish in the Padana Plain. Not wanting to face isolation, the Spanish withdrew through the Papal States along the Adriatic coast. Soon after, Charles Emmanuel countermarched rapidly to meet a second Spanish army entering Savoy via France. He won the campaign, but it was clear that the war was becoming harder to manage.

In 1743 the Spanish threatened Piedmont with two armies. Charles Emmanuel possessed no more than 42,000 men and could use only half against each Spanish army. Nonetheless, he crushed Prince Philip’s army, marching from France, at Casteldelfino. Simultaneously, the Piedmontese with their Habsburg allies fought and defeated the second army under de Gages at Camposanto, on the other side of Italy and pressed it to the Neapolitan-Papal States border on the Adriatic coast, where it sought refuge from the Neapolitan king.

In the autumn of 1743, Britain joined Piedmont and Austria in a formal league. The treaty signed in Wörms widened the scope of the conflict from Europe to Asia, Africa, and America, where it was known as King George’s War.

The 1744 campaign was hard fought. Unfortunately, Maria Theresa wanted Naples because, according to the Peace of Utrecht, it should have remained in Habsburg hands, yet the War of Polish Succession had reversed that agreement.

Charles Emmanuel warned the Austrian ruler that this would only increase the strategic dilemma. Why expand the conflict when victory was not in sight? Regardless of the free advice, she ordered her army to destroy de Gages’s Spanish army still waiting on the Neapolitan frontier. Charles VII of Naples, aware of the Austrian menace, declared war and once again united his troops with his father’s army.

An Austrian army marched south, passing through the Papal States from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian coast. Charles VII gathered the Spanish and Neapolitan army and encamped near Velletri, south of Rome. The Austrians attacked in August and were repulsed with great loss.

The defeat forced the Habsburgs to abandon central Italy in November. The Neapolitan-Spanish army followed on their heels, arriving in northern Italy. What a present for Charles Emmanuel, who had his own troubles.

In fact, France officially entered the war in that same year. A French army united with Prince Philip’s army passed the Alps, defeated the local Piedmontese resistance, and besieged Cuneo. Charles Emmanuel tried to relieve the city, but failed. He then directed the militia against the enemy’s ordnance and supply lines and, thanks to these guerrilla tactics and to Cuneo’s resistance, the Bourbon armies raised the siege and withdrew to France to take winter quarters.

In the early days of 1745, Genoa entered the conflict. The Most Serene Republic sought neutrality, just as Venice had done for the third time in forty-five years. Unfortunately, while Venice could defend its neutrality with 40,000 men, Genoa could not; and, moreover, Britain and Austria promised to give Charles Emmanuel the Marquisate of Finale, a little imperial fief in Liguria owned by the republic as a feudatory of the empire. Charles Emmanuel desired it as a port, an additional window to the Mediterranean.

In order to protect its territory, Genoa signed a treaty in Aranjuez and joined the Bourbon alliance. It was a disaster for Charles Emmanuel. The Genoese accession to the League provided the Spanish-French army with an opened route from France through Genoese territory, and now they could mass the army from France with the army from Naples via Velletri, adding to it 10,000 Genoese troops. This was the real disaster as it increased the powerful Bourbon army to 90,000 men.

As the war in Flanders continued, Charles Emmanuel received no support from Austria.

He had a mere 43,000 men. Maneuvering them well to avoid battle, he lost many fortresses but preserved his army. Despite this, he was compelled to accept an armistice in December 1745. Fortunately, Prussia accepted peace terms offered by Austria, allowing Vienna to send 12,000 men to Italy. It was not an impressive army, but enough to permit Charles Emmanuel to take the field upon the expiration of the armistice. In the spring 1746 he attacked and the Bourbons were defeated. Milan was reconquered, Piedmont liberated, and Genoa overrun by the Austrians. The Piedmontese army occupied western Liguria and the French and Spanish fled, abandoning the republic.

While Charles Emmanuel prepared an invasion of southern France, he sent a regiment to support the Corsican revolution against Genoese rule.

The revolt in the Portoria district in Genoa against the Austrians in 1746, led by Giovan Battista Perasso (1735-1781) known as Balilla, 19th century print. Italy, 18th-19th century.

Genoa found itself under occupation and threatened with destruction if it did not pay 3 million scudi to Austria. Subsequently the city revolted, and the Austrian garrison was ejected. Charles Emmanuel halted his operations against France and marched to support Austrian operations against the city. The Genoese fleet, supported by coastal defenses, prevented the British fleet from shelling Genoa, but the Austrian and Piedmontese armies cut the city off from the outside world by land, while the French supplied its ally with men and material by sea.

In the spring of 1747, a new French army marched along the Mediterranean coast. Charles Emmanuel ordered his troops to hold Nice, but soon he knew that another French expeditionary force was approaching the Alps from the west. If they crossed the Alps, they could effectively threaten Turin.

Charles Emmanuel had no troops to stem the invasion. He scraped together what troops he could find. On July 19, 1747, at Assietta Hill, 30,000 French with artillery attacked 5,400 Piedmontese and 2,000 Austrians. At sunset, the French had lost 5,800 men and left more than 600 wounded1 to the victorious defenders. General Count Bricherasio lost only 192 Piedmontese and 27 Austrians; it was clearly a triumph.

Assietta Hill was the last battle of the war on the Italian front. A peace was signed on October 30, 1748, at Aix-la-Chapelle. 2 Everything remained as it was before the war, except that Prince Philip of Spain obtained the duchy of Parma and Charles Emmanuel received from Maria Theresa two West Lombardy provinces, Vigevano, and Anghiera County, and a part of the territory of Pavia, setting the Milanese-Piedmontese border along the Ticino river.