Sicily between Byzantium and the Islamic World

The Hariri Ship, the first known picture of an Arab sailing vessel.

Map of the Arab–Byzantine naval conflict in the Mediterranean, 7th–11th centuries.

Map of southern Italy in the 10th century. Byzantine provinces (themes) in yellow, Lombard principalities in other colours.

Afterwards, the Saracens who had sailed from Rome came to Sicily, where they occupied the aforementioned city and slaughtered many of the population who had taken refuge in fortifications or in the mountains and, taking with them lots of booty or bronze, they returned to Alexandria.

Vita of Pope Adeodatus II

During the Byzantine centuries, Greek and Latin travelers to and from Sicily were examples and, indeed, agents of the complex web of connections between the Latin and Greek Christian worlds as they overlapped on Sicily. From the seventh century onward, Sicily also began to be drawn into the Islamicate world, as represented primarily by the political center of Qayrawān and the many seaports of Aghlabid Ifrīqiya (modern Tunisia) and Egypt. Long before Sicily became a Muslim province in the ninth century, in fact, considerable travel and communication were conducted between the island and the dār al-Islām, making the island increasingly important as a zone of interaction between Muslims and Christians, both Greek and Latin. Although, as in the sixth and seventh centuries, economic movements cannot be quantitatively reconstructed from the remaining data, by the eighth century, there is clear evidence of semiregular ship travel between the shores of Sicily and Aghlabid Ifrīqiya. While most of this traffic was of a military nature—with regular raids on Sicily’s southern shores starting in the seventh century of the common era—evidence also points to both diplomatic and, perhaps, even commercial transactions occurring between Sicily and Muslim North Africa while the island remained under the administrative control of Constantinople.

The introduction of Muslim powers into the western Mediterranean thus expanded the communication networks in which Sicily participated, in effect broadening the island’s place in the region rather than constricting or isolating it. New networks were opened while preexisting ones were maintained, even if altered. It is true that the relative amount of travel along each of the routes shifted and rebalanced over time, as Sicily conceptually drew closer to Muslim Africa and drifted farther from the Greek eastern Mediterranean. As the central Mediterranean Sea became populated with more and more Muslim-sailed ships, the waters around Sicily came to be linked more closely with northern Africa. At times we see ships from the Christian world encountering difficulties when sailing into hostile waters, but these voyages did not cease. The island, at the nexus of these three worlds, continued for some time to be a place of interaction and connection between Muslims and Christians, even if a preponderance of these interactions, as they appear in the sources, were hostile. Even violent interaction—and especially regularly recurring violent contact, such as that which took place during the nearly annual Muslim raids against Sicily—is a type of exchange that requires travel and the infrastructure of travel, and that connects peoples and spaces, drawing them closer together in terms of communications.

Even while communications with Muslim North Africa were increasing, Sicily remained in contact with the Greek East and with the Latin West. That is, the entry of Muslim polities into Sicilian affairs caused a relatively slow shift southward—rather than a break—of the communication networks of the island, concurrent with the persistence of many of the connections between Constantinople, Sicily, and Rome. The traditional periodization of Sicily’s history draws a firm line between the Greek Byzantine era and the Muslim period, with historians of Byzantium and the Middle East divvying up their examinations of the island. If, instead, we look across these centuries, at the transition period itself, our view of Sicily’s history and role within Mediterranean systems is very different. By placing the conquest of Sicily by Muslim forces in the middle of our examination rather than at the beginning or the end, we see that Muslim North Africa’s involvement with Sicily transformed the island’s communication networks rather than simply replacing one set of networks with another. Viewed across the period of the conquest, from the start of Muslim involvement in Sicily in the seventh century through the ninth–century conquest and into the tenth century, as Byzantine forces continued to try to retake Muslim Sicily—and by examining a variety of sources in Greek, Arabic, and Latin—political control did not necessarily determine the extent and range of the communications that defined Sicily’s regional affinities and its place within those local systems. Sicily was and remained broadly interconnected within the Mediterranean system, with Muslims and Latins as well as Greek Christians, even as the shapes and meanings of these connections shifted.

At the same time that military engagement was the most often recorded type of interaction between Sicily and Africa, the sources also allow glimpses of less martial communications between Greek Christians and Muslims. At times, those interactions took place because of or in the midst of battle, and at other times they could arise from diplomatic exchanges aimed at the stabilization of political and military tensions. Just as Byzantine Sicily was the site of diplomatic negotiations and the transfer of information between Greek and Latin Christian officials, so too did diplomats and envoys travel between Greek Sicily and Islamic North Africa, carrying both news and negotiations for peace. For example, the semiannual military incursions from Ifrīqiya were several times halted by truces that were officially concluded between embassies traveling between Syracuse and Qayrawān. Likewise, economic connections between the two may also have developed at this time. Because direct evidence for trade between Sicily and Ifrīqiya at this time is scarce, we can only assume the existence of economic connections that might be implied in the source record. Ships sailing back and forth within the Sicilian Strait between Ifrīqiyan ports and those of Sicily could have easily made the trip without meriting record in textual sources, and there are some suggestions that Sicily’s economic conditions were attracting the attention of Qayrawān. The Arabic chronicles, although written much later than the events they describe, detail the raids on Sicily carried out from Ifrīqiya and list all of the items gathered from the island, which suggests that the Aghlabid emīrate was taking an increasingly economic interest in the island of Sicily. Even if these lists of valuable items reflect a nostalgic image of a lost island of wealth, they demonstrate that the memory of Sicily’s conquest was tied closely to the perceived value of the products to be gained there. While the collection of war spoils was a regular part of this type of military strike, and a common way to reward soldiers for their service, it is the prolonged interest paid to the details of this booty by the later chroniclers that merits our attention. On the other hand, the products mentioned were exclusively high-value items—bejeweled icons and human slaves, for example—rather than more mundane trade items such as grain or textiles, which may also have proved attractive. At any rate, the Arabic chroniclers’ focus on these spoils indicates that they associated the conquest (and, therefore, also the loss) of Sicily with the annexation of an opulent and prosperous society.

The precise reasons that in the ninth century these regular raids for the collection of booty turned into an outright conquest of Sicily are not perfectly clear. The sustained interest that North African Muslims had taken in Sicily for many years suggests that the conquest was not simply the result of a sudden revival of jihād ideology or a desire to expand Islamic rule into Italy. Likewise, the conquest of Sicily should not be understood as part of the same process that brought North Africa and Iberia into the Islamic world, although those conquests do provide a background for this one. The conquest of Sicily was a major undertaking that occurred more than a century after the conclusion of the initial period of Muslim expansion into the Mediterranean region, and it arose from unique impulses relating to the nature of the Byzantine-Muslim frontier in the central Mediterranean. As with the later Norman Latin takeover of Sicily, outright military conquest followed many years of involvement in the island’s affairs. Sicily had been slowly entering the orbit of North Africa for several centuries prior to the ninth-century takeover. Then, as the boundary line between Byzantine and Muslim territory in the Mediterranean became more porous, the balance of power tipped far enough in Muslim favor that the outright military conquest of Sicily appeared to be advantageous for the Aghlabid administration of Ifrīqiya.

Indeed, it is the permeability of the Sicilian borderland itself that created the shift in relative power between Muslim and Christian authorities in the region. Much work has been done on the relationship between the Byzantines and the Muslims along the eastern frontier between Anatolia and Syria, and on the importance of that border zone for the health and wholeness of the Byzantine Empire. Far less has been written about the western frontier, partly because the Muslim-Greek battles that took place in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean were closer to the heartlands of both civilizations, and partly because that region produced the preponderance of sources about the Muslim-Christian conflict. But Sicily operated within the Byzantine Empire of the sixth through tenth centuries as an equally important frontier for Constantinople: one that both connected and separated the Greek world from the Latin Christian world and, as we will see here, one that did likewise with the Muslim world. Sicily was not simply a point on the dividing line between polities or religiopolitical civilizations; it also connected cultures in a zone of contact and conflict. The paradigm for discussing the relationships between Byzantines and Muslims has also tended to be that of conflict—both rhetorical and militarized. But some more recent work has also located shared traditions and a high degree of continuity between the Roman past and both the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages. Likewise, the three cultures that overlapped in the border region of Sicily and southern Italy indeed did so with violence and war, but also with shared reliance on the Roman tradition and through diplomacy, trade, and interpersonal interactions in the midst of warfare.

During the centuries of Byzantine control, Sicily was a region where fluidity of communications made it possible for Greeks, Muslims, and Latins to contest their control over a coveted locale while also maintaining the diplomatic and economic ties that were important to all of the parties involved. That is, this boundary zone between the Latin, Greek, and Muslim worlds was a disputed area, but one where various parties could meet, rather than a solid line of demarcation between Christians and Muslims. Sicily was often considered—by both Constantinople and local powers in Italy—an extension of Constantinople’s authority and, at the same time, was an important venue for managing relationships between local Muslim powers and the Greek Byzantine world. These multifaceted relationships along the Sicilian borderland will here be viewed by means of military, political, diplomatic, and economic communications between Byzantine Sicily and Muslim North Africa, along with the consequent population transfers that wrought demographic changes in the region, which would themselves also help shape future communication networks on and around the island.


Like many tribal societies, the ethnic groups of Ethiopia put a strong emphasis on martial ability. Boys were trained from early childhood in the use of the sword, spear and shield. Every man yearned to own a gun, not just for what it would do for him on the battlefield, but also for hunting.

The Italians faced an Ethiopian army larger and more organized than in all of its recent history. Menelik had centralized and streamlined the taxation system, bringing in more goods to the central government. This allowed Menelik to keep a larger standing army, and support a huge temporary army at need. Most taxes were in kind – food or labour that went directly to support the soldiers. Menelik also ordered an extensive geographical survey in order to increase revenue, and to identify land that could be given to soldiers as a reward. His government also enjoyed the revenue from customs duties on ever-increasing international trade.

Mobilization and logistics

While the emperor maintained only a relatively small standing army, the entire countryside could be mobilized when a Negus ordered a kitet, or call to arms. This was made by proclamations in marketplaces and other gathering spots, and large negarit war drums were beaten to alert outlying farms. One even acted as a platform for the messenger, who stood on an upturned drum and read the proclamation while a slave held his lance and robe next to him as symbols of his rank. While the king was not always in full control of his territory, `beating the kitet’ was generally effective; it usually summoned men to fight against a common enemy, and always offered a chance for plunder and prestige. The Ethiopian army on the march looked more like a migration. Many warriors brought their families along, and wives and children would cook and gather provisions and firewood. During the march there were no stops until a camp was found for the night. The was assembling might run into difficulties of supply, especially considering that some regions he planned to march through were suffering from famine, so he ordered depots of food to be placed at regular intervals along the lines of march. This allowed Menelik to wait out the Italians on a couple of occasions.

This need for strategic speed affected how the Ethiopians made war. They avoided long conflicts in favour of big showdown battles in which they could destroy the enemy army and force favourable terms from the enemy commander. Drawn-out campaigns could prove counterproductive, since the army would have to ravage the very land they sought to conquer, forcing the inhabitants to flee. During Menelik’s long wait before Adowa the area was picked clean of food and most of the trees were chopped down for firewood. Shortages of ammunition, and the often fragile coalitions among the leaders, also encouraged quick campaigns.

To aid the advance, teams of workmen moved ahead of the main army clearing the way of trees and stones and searching out the best passes through the mountains. The Negus Negasti kept a group that outsiders called the `Royal Engineers’, but while some were undoubtedly skilled at complex operations such as building bridges, most were simply labourers.


Ethiopians favoured a half-moon formation in order to outflank and envelop an enemy, although extreme terrain often made this impossible. Despite having a general plan, warriors fought more or less as individuals, advancing and retreating as they saw fit. Chiefs only had a loose control over their men, and never kept them in close formation except for the final charge, when everyone bunched together and hurried to be the first to reach the foe. Considering the lethal effectiveness of late 19th-century rifles, this loose mode of fighting was actually in advance of its day. The Ethiopian tendency was to get in close to ensure a good shot, although rushing en masse when the enemy appeared weak did lead to great losses. The Italian army, especially the ascari, showed good discipline under fire, and inflicted heavy casualties on the Ethiopians; the majority of these tended to be suffered during the final rush. When charging, the Ethiopians used various battle cries depending on their origin: the Oromo shouted `Slay! Slay!’, while warriors from Gojjam cried `God pardon us, Christ!’, and those from Shewa rallied to the call `Together! Together!’

The Ethiopians had no formal medical corps. Healers trained in traditional medicine followed the army, but were too few to care adequately for the huge numbers of casualties. Still, traditional healers did the best they could at setting limbs and cleaning out wounds. One method for sanitizing gunshot wounds was to pour melted butter mixed with the local herb fetho (lapidum sativum) into the wound. In battle the warriors’ families cared for the wounded, collected guns from the fallen to distribute to poorly armed warriors, and fetched water for those wealthier warriors had servants to carry their equipment and mules or horses to ride. All these extra people and animals had to be fed, increasing the need to keep mobile. While some food was carried by the men themselves or on muleback, the army was expected to live off the land, and foragers spread out over a large area. The central highlands of Ethiopia are green and filled with game, so as long as an army kept moving it could feed itself, and, being relatively unburdened, it could move quickly. If it stopped for long, however, it would soon starve; this was a major problem if the army had to besiege a fortification, or – as in the run-up to Adowa – wait for an enemy to make the first move. Menelik realized that the large force he fighting. This last detail was important; at Adowa, Itegue Taitu had at least 10,000 women bringing water to the warriors, while the Italians suffered from thirst throughout the day.

The Ethiopians lacked uniforms; common warriors wore their everyday clothing – generally a white, cream, or brown length of cotton called a shamma that was wound around the body in various ways. Chiefs and higher nobility wore a variety of colourful garments, including the lembd, a ceremonial item vaguely resembling the cope or dalmatic of Christian churchmen. If a man had slain a lion during his career, his formal clothing could be embellished with the lion’s mane.


Despite Western preconceptions, and the employment of antique firearms by the poorest warriors, the majority of Ethiopians were armed with large-calibre, breech-loading, mostly single-shot rifles no more than 30 years old since they had first appeared in Western armies. It is estimated that Menelik’s army may have had as many as 100,000 of such weapons in 1896. Until the collapse of diplomatic relations he had been able to purchase large numbers of rifles from the Italians, and also from the Russians, French and British. After Italian sources dried up Menelik strove to increase his other imports, and a key figure in this trade was Ras Mekonnen of Harar, a city in eastern Ethiopia with trade links to the Red Sea. Individual chiefs also stockpiled arms, and issued them to their best warriors in times of need.

The types used by the Ethiopians included the elderly British 1866/67 Snider – an 1856 Enfield muzzle-loader converted into a single-shot breechloader. Used on the British Magdala expedition of 1867-68 against the Emperor Tewodros II, it had a massive 14.6mm calibre and a hinged breech action. However, the Ethiopians also had considerable numbers of the superior 1871 Martini-Henry – the classic British single-shot, lever-action, falling-block weapon of the colonial wars, firing 11.43mm bullets. The French 1866 Chassepot was another second-generation breechloader, a bolt-action, single-shot weapon taking 11mm paper and card cartridges; but again, the Ethiopians also had larger numbers of more modern 1871 Le Gras rifles, in which the Chassepot’s paper cartridges were replaced with 11mm brass rounds. Menelik’s warriors even had some 1886 Lebel 8mm bolt-action magazine rifles; with eight cartridges in the tubular magazine below the barrel, one in the cradle behind the chamber and one `up the spout’, these took ten rounds. The Lebel’s smaller-bore, smokeless-powder ammunition was the most advanced in the world (all the other types took black-powder rounds, which produced a giveaway cloud of white smoke and fouled the chamber fairly quickly with continuous firing).

The Peabody-Martini was an 1870 Swiss modification of an 1862 Peabody design from the United States. Widely manufactured across Europe, it had a single-shot, falling-block action in various calibres from 10.41mm to 11.43 mm. Probably the single most common rifle in Ethiopian use was the `rolling-block’ Remington, another American design very widely built under licence in the 1860s-80s, in calibres up to 12.7mm (.50 calibre). The Winchester 1866 was a lever-action 11.18mm calibre weapon with a tubular magazine taking 12 rounds; several later models used a box magazine. The Russians had supplied the Ethiopians with a fair number of US-designed, Russian-made Berdan 1864 and 1870 rifles; both were single-shot 10.75mm weapons, the 1864 model with a hinged `trapdoor’ breech and the 1870 with a bolt action. Sources also mention German Mausers, most likely the 11mm single-shot, bolt-action 1871 model. The Ethiopians also had some examples of the Austrian 1878 Kropatschek, an 11mm bolt-action repeater with an eight-round tubular magazine.

This wide variety of rifles and calibres inevitably created local shortages of ammunition. Menelik instituted a quartermaster system, and individual leaders may have helped supply individuals who were short of cartridges, but in general each man was expected to supply his own (and probably `collected his brass’ for artisan reloading). Cartridges were so valuable they were often used as currency; being hoarded, they tended to be older than was ideal, but Menelik and other leaders strove to purchase as much new ammunition as possible, and it appears that his forces at Adowa were well supplied. Still, out of habit the Ethiopian soldier conserved his ammunition, preferring to get up close before firing. Wylde noted they `made good practice at up to about 400-600 yards, and at a short distance they are as good shots as any men in Africa, the Transvaal Boers not excepted, as they never throw away a cartridge if they can help it and never shoot in a hurry’.

Traditional weapons

Despite the wide availability of firearms, many Ethiopians still went into battle with more traditional weapons. The shotel was the favoured type of sword, a heavy steel weapon curved like a scimitar, but with the sharpened edge usually on the inside of the curve so that the warrior could stab around the edge of an opponent’s shield. It was carried slung on the right side, so that the left (shield) arm had a full range of movement. Steel-headed spears were pretty much universal among men and boys for defending their flocks from wild animals; generally about 6ft long with a leaf-shaped head, they could be thrown, but were more often used for thrusting. Small shields completed an Ethiopian warrior’s kit. Styles varied among the tribes, but the most common was a circular, conical shield made of hide and covered on the front with coloured cloth such as velvet. Many were decorated and strengthened with strips of brass, tin or more valuable metals; a shield was an easy way for a warrior to show off his wealth and status, and many were quite elaborate.

Cavalry was common in the Ethiopian lowlands, and the horsemen of the Oromo were especially renowned. Horses were useful and acted as a status symbol, so every warrior wanted one. The Ethiopian horse is smaller than its European counterpart and can negotiate terrain that would stop a European steed. Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s mountainous terrain and dense thickets of thorn-bushes often meant that battles had to be fought on foot. Weaponry for cavalrymen was identical to that for footsoldiers.


The Ethiopians had 42 guns at Adowa. It is unclear what types of cannon were used, but sources agree that they were a mix of older guns bought or captured from various sources. They included Krupps, and mountain guns captured from the Egyptians when they tried to take Ethiopian territory in 1875 and 1876, or left behind when the Egyptian garrison evacuated Harar in 1885. One source describes the artillery as `of all calibres and systems’. There was a chronic shortage of shells, and thus crews had little chance to practise. While the Ethiopians were capable of bombarding a fort, as at Mekele, they had difficulty in manoeuvring guns and laying down accurate fire in broken terrain against a moving enemy; Italian eyewitnesses said that the Ethiopian artillery made a poor performance at Adowa.

More effective were the several automatic cannon that Menelik brought to Adowa. A detailed listing is unavailable, but Maxim weapons are mentioned, and perhaps six were 37mm Hotchkiss pieces. Produced by an American company from 1875, these were later licence-built in Europe, particularly France. Early versions were multi-barrel revolvers, fired by turning a crank like a Gatling gun; later models had a single barrel and were fed by a belt. These later-model `pom-poms’ fired both solid and explosive rounds, and were superior in range and accuracy to the Italian artillery.



1: Baqqara cavalryman This warrior is protected by quilted armour under an iron helmet and long ringmail shirt; note too the extensive quilted horse-armour and leather chamfron. He is armed with a spear with a broad leaf-shaped head, and a kaskara sword and flintlock pistol carried on his saddle. The Dervishes plundered many Martini-Henry rifles from defeated Egyptian soldiers, but the only modern touch to disrupt the splendidly medieval impression created by this warrior is a holstered revolver at his hip.

2: Sudanese footsoldier This infantryman, too, wears quilted armour; while useless against firearms, this was still fairly effective against the spears and swords of the Mahdists’ tribal enemies. He is armed with a spear, and a kaskara sword carried in a crocodile-skin scabbard; the flared end of the scabbard is purely stylistic, as the blade has conventional parallel edges. His concave hide shield with a large boss and nicked rim is of a type common in the Sudan.

A challenge to the Italians came from the loosely structured Mahdiyya army in the Sudan. The Mahdi claimed to be the new prophet of Islam, and his devout followers drawn from disparate peoples made great gains against the British-sponsored Egyptians and neighbouring tribes. There had been a longstanding rivalry between these Muslim warriors and the mostly Christian Ethiopians. Emperor Yohannes campaigned against the Dervishes, but, while at first successful, he was defeated and fatally wounded at the battle of Metemma on 9 March 1889.

Although the Mahdi died in June 1885 the fight was continued by his successor, the Khalifa. Between 1885 and 1896, when the reconquest of the Sudan was undertaken by the Anglo-Egyptians.

The Mahdists fought the Italians for the first time at Agordat on 27 June 1890. About 1,000 warriors raided the Beni Amer, a tribe under Italian protection, and then went on to the wells at Agordat, on the road between the Sudan and northern Eritrea. An Italian force of two ascari companies surprised and routed them; Italian losses were only three killed and eight wounded, while the Mahdists lost about 250 dead. In 1892 the Mahdists raided again, and on 26 June a force of 120 ascari and about 200 allied Baria warriors beat them at Serobeti. Again, Italian losses were minimal – three killed and ten wounded – while the raiders lost about 100 dead and wounded out of a total of some 1,000 men. Twice the ascari had shown solid discipline while facing a larger force, and had emerged victorious. The inferior weaponry and fire discipline of the Mahdists played a large part in these defeats.

Major-General Oreste Baratieri took over as military commander of Italian forces in Africa on 1 November 1891, and also became civil governor of the colony on 22 February 1892. Baratieri had fought under Garibaldi during the wars of Italian unification, and was one of the most respected Italian generals of his time. He instituted a series of civil and military reforms to make the colony more efficient and its garrison effective. The latter was established by royal decree on 11 December 1892. The Italian troops included a battalion of Cacciatori (light infantry), a section of artillery artificers, a medical section, and a section of engineers. The main force was to be four native infantry battalions, two squadrons of native cavalry, and two mountain batteries. There were also mixed Italian/native contingents that included one company each of gunners, engineers and commissariat. This made a grand total of 6,561 men, of whom 2,115 were Italians. Facing the Mahdists, and with tension increasing with the Ethiopians, this garrison was soon strengthened by the addition of seven battalions, three of which were Italian volunteers (forming new 1st, 2nd and 3rd Inf Bns) and four of local ascari, plus another native battery. A Native Mobile Militia of 1,500 was also recruited, the best of them being encouraged to join the regular units. Like all the other colonial powers, the Italians also made widespread use of native irregulars recruited and led by local chiefs.

The first big test came at the second battle of Agordat on 21 December 1893. A force of about 12,000 Mahdists, including some 600 elite Baqqara cavalry, headed south out of the Sudan towards Agordat and the Italian colony. Facing them were 42 Italian officers and 23 Italian other ranks, 2,106 ascari, and eight mountain guns. The Italian force anchored itself on either side of the fort at Agordat, and from this strong position they repelled a mass attack, though not without significant losses – four Italians and 104 ascari killed, three Italians and 121 ascari wounded. The Mahdists lost about 2,000 killed and wounded, and 180 captured.

When the Mahdists launched raids across the border in the spring of 1894, the Italians decided to take the offensive and capture Kassala, an important Mahdist town. General Baratieri led 56 Italian officers and 41 Italian other ranks, along with 2,526 ascari and two mountain guns. At Kassala on 17 July they clashed with about 2,000 Mahdist infantry and 600 Baqqara cavalry. The Italians formed two squares, which inflicted heavy losses on the mass attacks by the Mahdists, before an Italian counterattack ended the battle. The Italians suffered an officer and 27 men killed, and two native NCOs and 39 men wounded; Mahdist casualties numbered 1,400 dead and wounded – a majority of their force. The Italians also captured 52 flags, some 600 rifles, 50 pistols, two cannons, 59 horses, and 175 cattle. This crushing defeat stopped Mahdist incursions for more than a year, and earned Baratieri acclaim at home. (In 1896 the Mahdi’s followers would make several more incursions into Eritrean territory, but without success. Fighting the Italians seriously weakened the Mahdiyya, and contributed to its defeat at the hands of Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian army at Omdurman in 1898.)


Italian members of the Corpo Truppe Volontarie which assisted Franco’s forces throughout the war. They wear mounted troops’ bandoliers, and most are armed with the M1891 Carcano carbine with a permanently attached folding bayonet.

The first foreign armour to enter service with the Nationalists were five Italian CV 3/35 tankettes, which arrived at the port of Vigo on 26 August 1936 accompanied by ten Italian crewmen to serve as instructors. This would be the most numerous type of AFV employed by the Italian corps in Spain, but – armed with two 8mm machine guns, and with a maximum armour thickness of 15mm – it proved quite inadequate when faced by the Republic’s Soviet-supplied T-26 tanks with 45mm guns.

The most important Nationalist Air Corps fighter type was the Italian Fiat CR. 32, of which seven squadrons were in service by August 1938. These two machines are `3-60′ and `3-62′ (type number – individual aircraft number), which served with Escuadrilla 2-E-3 during the Brunete campaign in summer 1937. By the end of hostilities 20 Nationalist pilots had been credited with five or more aerial victories; the topscoring three were Joaquin Garcia Morato (40 kills), Julio Salvador Diaz Benzumea (25), and Manuel Vazquez Sagistazabal (21½), all of whom won the great majority of their victories while flying the CR. 32.

By far the most important foreign support received by the Nationalists came from Fascist Italy; this would total some 78,000 men, about 750 aircraft and 150 armoured vehicles. Unlike the German armed forces, the Italians had recent combat experience from their invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in October 1935-May 1936. On 12 December 1936, after the failure of Franco’s attempts to capture Madrid, Mussolini decided to send complete Italian ground units to Spain, and the first 3,000 men of the Missione Militare in Spagna arrived on 23 December. By the end of January 1937 some 44,000 Italians were in Spain, mostly members of the militarized Fascist Party `Blackshirt’ militia (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nationale, MVSN). On 17 February the expeditionary force was renamed the Corpo Truppe Volontarie, CTV; commanded by Gen Mario Roatta, in March it numbered more than 50,000 men.

The CTV initially consisted of four small divisions. The 4th `Voluntarii Littorio’ (`Lictor Volunteers’) Infantry Division was composed of Army volunteers organized as in a regular Royal Army formation, which had two infantry regiments each of three battalions, an artillery battalion with three batteries, plus a mortar and an engineer battalion. The other three divisions and an independent infantry brigade group were from the MVSN: infantry divisions designated 1st `Dio lo Vuole’ (`God Wills It’), 2nd `Fiamme Nere’ (`Black Flames’) and 3rd `Penne Nere’ (`Black Feathers’), plus the independent Grupo `XXIII de Marzo’ (`23rd of March’). An MVSN regiment (legion) had only two battalions (cohortes) each 670 strong. The CTV also had a battalion of armoured cars and light tankettes, and a corps artillery of ten field regiments and four AA batteries. It was motorized throughout, but the artillery was obsolete. In February 1937 the light armour was amalgamated with some motorized infantry and artillery into a Raggruppamento Reparti Specializzati (`Group of Specialist Units’, RRS).

In early February 1937 the 1st MVSN Div took part in the successful Nationalist attack on Malaga. In March, at Mussolini’s complacent insistence, the CTV was committed to another offensive near Madrid, at Guadalajara; this failed, however, with heavy losses among the MVSN divisions. The 3rd `Black Feathers’ Div was absorbed by the 2nd `Black Flames’ Div in April; Gen Roatta was replaced by Gen Ettore Bastico, and thereafter the CTV would not carry out operations independent of the Nationalist high command.

Many Italians served thereafter in mixed Italo-Spanish `Flechas’ (`Arrows’) formations, providing the officers and technical personnel while the majority of the rank-and-file were Spanish. From April to August 1937 the first of these mixed brigades, named `Flechas Azules’ (`Blue Arrows’), took the field in Extremadura. The second, `Flechas Negras’ (`Black Arrows’), fought in the Basque country on the Biscay front, supported by the `23rd of March’ and 11th Artillery groups. There, in August, the CTV played a successful part in the offensive against Santander; they were then transferred to the Aragon front.

In September 1937 the `23rd of March’ Group was redesignated as a division, and in October this was amalgamated, with the 1st `God Wills It’ and 2nd `Black Flames’ divisions, into a new consolidated `XIII di Marzo – Fiamme Nere’ MVSN division. In October 1938, with the repatriation of many time-expired personnel, this formation would in turn amalgamate with the `Littorio’ Div, leaving the CTV with a single consolidated Army/Blackshirt formation designated Assault Div `Littorio’, of two infantry regiments with support units. This fought in Catalonia from 23 December 1938 to 8 February 1939.

In March 1938 the Italo-Spanish `Black Arrows’ brigade had been committed to the Aragon offensive towards the Mediterranean coast, and by November it had been enlarged to divisional status. The `Blue Arrows’ mixed brigade provided the nucleus for two other mixed Italo-Spanish divisions named `Blue Arrows’ and `Green Arrows’, which in 1939 also took part in the final offensive in Catalonia, alongside the all-Italian `Littorio’ Assault Division.

In all, some 78,500 Italian volunteers served in Spain, at a cost of 3,819 killed and about 12,000 wounded.


In the summer of 1936, many Spanish generals revolted against the country’s Republican government. They asked Italy and Germany for military support. Mussolini did not like the idea very much, but he saw it as an opportunity to outmaneuver France. From the Italian point of view, France appeared to have a peculiar ability to act in a way that drew the ire of other countries. In those years, not only did Italians view French attitudes as hostile toward Italy, but also premier Leon Blum made two policy errors, which further alienated Italy. The first was a FrancoSpanish pact. Spain allowed French troops transit through Spanish territory to reach North Africa in case of war against Italy. The second was his announcement of sending weapons, ordnance, and men to support the Spanish Republic.

Mussolini did not care about Spanish affairs, but if French intervention rendered Spain a sort of French protectorate, or strategic ally, Italy could find both the exits from Mediterranean closed to Italian shipping. Suez was owned by a French-British company. The Straits of Gibraltar were passable because Spain owned the African side, despite British possession of Gibraltar. What if France indirectly controlled that side as Britain controlled the European one? This could pose a threat to Mussolini’s strategic interests. Italian foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano convinced Mussolini to commit the Regio Esercito for the OMS-Oltre Mare Spagna (Overseas Spain)-operation.

The Italian Military Mission arrived first in Spain to coordinate with General Francisco Franco. Then the Regia Aeronautica sent him a squadron of twelve bombers. On August 4, 1936, Italian aircraft attacked and swept the loyal Republican Spanish fleet out of the Straits of Gibraltar. Then Italian and recently arrived German aircraft transported Spanish colonial troops from Africa to Spain. Italian military support gradually increased. Technicians, tanks, and specialists were sent to Franco as volunteers. He lacked modern weapons and used them not for training his troops, but directly in combat. Italian light tanks played a basic role in smashing the enemy front at Navalcarnero, on October 21. Three days later, Italian military advisers had to fight in Borox. Italian light tanks met Russian-made tanks for the first time and won. Just as the Spanish nationalists and Falange (the Spanish conservative-right party) received support from Italy and Germany, the Republic, which was dominated by Socialists, Communists, and anarchists, received substantial aid from the Soviet Union.

Italian armored forces acted as the Spanish Nationalists’ vanguard and reached Madrid University during the tenacious battle for the capital. The Italian General Staff realized this was no more matter of training the Spanish and, with Mussolini’s direction, increased its military involvement by committing forty thousand more men. “Who asked for it?” Franco curtly asked Lieutenant Colonel Emilio Faldella, chief of the Italian Military Mission, although he did not refuse them.

The CTV-Corpo Truppe Volontarie (Corps of Voluntary Troops)-arrived in Spain. It was composed of four light divisions supported by a large heavy artillery contingent-the Artiglieria Legionaria (Legionnaire Artillery)-and an air component, the Aviazione Legionaria.

Thousands of pages have been written to demonstrate that the CTV were anything but volunteers and that Italy’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War was unpopular; they are largely wrong. Although it is true that the first three thousand men sent to Spain in December originally applied to go to Ethiopia as civil laborers, it is also true that, according to archival documents, a lot of people asked to volunteer for Spain. The Army Archive contains many reports about it. For instance, L’Aquila Military District received hundreds and hundreds of applications. Campobasso Military District suddenly received more than one thousands volunteers.  

Why such large participation in this civil war? There were two central reasons. The first was propaganda. News from Spain, more or less enhanced by state propaganda, depicted a terrible situation in Spain. The horror of the war being waged against the clergy, with monks and priests being tortured and shot, nuns raped, churches destroyed, and sacrilege committed, all played upon the Italian public. For a Catholic country such as Italy, these horrors were enough to encourage a sort of “crusade,” as the Nationalists called the war. The second reason was money. Each volunteer received a 300-lira enlistment bonus, 20 liras daily pay, and an additional 3 pesetas daily pay from the Spanish Nationalist government. It was a lot of money for the lower classes, especially in a period of high unemployment, even if the Fascist government did not admit it.  

General Mario Roatta commanded the CTV-under the name Mancini, because officially Italy was not involved. They fought successfully at Malaga and Motril in February 1937.

On the Republican side, a lot of volunteers were coming from everywhere to fight Fascism. George Orwell from England, Ernest Hemingway from the United States, and, incidentally many Italians, too, who composed a battalion. Italians were present on both sides, but Franco did not like it. When he thought that strategic suggestions from Rome were becoming too intrusive, he sought to reduce their presence, yet events convinced him otherwise. On February 15, 1937, he asked the CTV to launch an offensive on Guadalajara within a month. Three days later, however, after a victorious Republican counterattack, Franco asked Roatta for immediate intervention. It was the turning point.

On March 8, 1937, Italian troops attacked along the Carretera de Francia, the route from the south to Madrid, Saragossa, and France. Snow and ice pelted the advancing troops, and bad weather over Nationalist airfields prevented any air support for the Italian offensive. On the Republican side, good weather did not restrict Republican aircraft from providing air cover. Moreover, when the Republicans counterattacked, the Nationalists gave no support to the Italians. Despite these circumstances the CTV initially advanced 22 miles, lost 12, and then held the remaining 10 miles. But they failed to reach their objectives, and the battle had to be considered a loss. After this, Franco did not accept Italian strategic advice.

Republican propaganda exploited this victory: No pasara`n-They will not pass! Mussolini was so angered by this propaganda that he determined to commit greater forces to the war. Italian troops increased in quality and quantity and Mussolini finally admitted official involvement on October 20, 1937. His admission also ended the grotesque “piracy” in the Mediterranean. Since the early days of the civil war, merchant ships en route to Spain had been sunk by “mysterious” submarines. The Regia Marina, did not admit responsibility, but it was well known. After a League of Nations initiative, the Regia Marina together with German Kriegsmarine, the British Royal Navy, and French Marine Nationale participated in antipiracy control in the Mediterranean and along Spanish coasts.

The Italian and German secret services in the Black Sea and Dardanelles observed Soviet ships carrying supplies and ordnance to Spain. Italian submarines acted accordingly and “pirates” sank the ships. But it was thanks to the operations against piracy that the Royal Navy was able to decipher the Regia Marina’s secret codes. This would become a problem for the Italian navy in a few years.

On land, Italian forces fought on all Spanish fronts. The Legionnaire Air Force, as the Regia Aeronautica was called in Spain, lost 175 pilots in combat. Troops were used in the north; and Legionnaire Artillery support played a fundamental role in the campaign in the north. Italian troops took part in seizing Bilbao, and the following battle of Brunete was won with the decisive role of the Aviazione Legionaria: It destroyed 100 enemy aircraft, and its close air support halted enemy counterattacks. Italian troops later attacked and, on August 26, seized Santander. When Italian tanks reached the center of the city, Nationalist supporters acclaimed them, crying, “Han pasado! Han pasado!”-they passed! After that battle, General Ettore Bastico was recalled to Rome. In fact, Franco protested because Bastico allowed many military and local civilian Republican officers to seek refuge on British ships. It was not the first time Italians acted differently from Spaniards. Italian troops considered Republicans as prisoners of war. The Nationalists did not. In the early days of the war their military courts sentenced prisoners to death. A first Italian formal protest made little impact. When Italian headquarters protested again, the Nationalists replied that they were being more careful about who was sentenced to death: they acquitted up to 30 percent of the total!

Further operations proved decisive for the war in northern Spain. Franco’s troops were hard-pressed near Huesca in December and were saved by the Legionnaire Artillery and Air Force. In March, Italian troops fought in Catalonia. They took Huesca and marched to the mouth of the Ebro. By the time they reached the sea they had lost 3,000 men, taken 10,000 prisoners, and captured three cities and fifty towns. The Spanish Republic was now cut in two.

The war ended on April 1, 1939. Italian support had clearly been decisive. Mussolini presented Franco with all the vehicles and heavy weapons used by the CTV. He did so because it was cheaper to leave them instead of shipping them back to Italy, but as it was the spring 1939, it was the worst possible time to give such a present to anyone. Italy would sorely miss the heavy equipment

Flying Rats I

Struggle is the origin of all things, for life is filled with opposites: love and hate, white and black, day and night, good and evil. And as long as these opposites do not maintain a balance, struggle will determine human nature as the final power of fate.


With victory over Abyssinia, Italy erupted in jubilation. Adowa had been avenged. The Italian tricolor waving over Addis Ababa was a glorious sight to the Duce’s fellow countrymen. But henceforward, with only two brief intervals, they would be at war for the next nine years.

The smoke of battle had hardly cleared over East Africa when Mussolini received an urgent appeal for help from Francisco Franco, leader of the Nationalist cause in Spain. In February 1936, a liberal-leftist coalition calling itself a ‘Popular Front’ won the country’s national elections by a slim margin. Immediately thereafter, radical socialists in the coalition pushed loudly for revolution. All political organizations and newspapers outside the far Left were criminalized, churches vandalized, nuns raped and priests beaten to death by incensed mobs raging through the streets of Madrid and Barcelona. Strikes spread everywhere, as military uprisings reduced the country to anarchy. On 26 July, the watchful Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, took advantage of Spanish internal distress, which he saw as an opportunity for establishing his long-dreamt-of foothold in Western Europe.

He dispatched more than 2,000 ‘military advisors’ to the new government leaders, who liquidated their liberal predecessors in the best Stalinist tradition, then set up an openly Marxist regime in Madrid, calling themselves, ‘Republicans’. Soon, 240 warplanes, 1,200 artillery pieces, and 700 tanks poured into Spain from the USSR. Soviet aid did not come cheap though, and Stalin had no qualms about bilking fellow Communists for more than $315 million, which represented Madrid’s entire gold reserve.

To counter the influx of men and arms from Russia, the Nationalists needed to transfer their army, stranded by these chaotic events in Morocco, to Iberian battlefields at once. But they lacked the means to do so. “Could we Fascists leave without answer that cry,” the Duce asked, “and remain indifferent in the face of the perpetuation of such bloody crimes committed by the so-called ‘Popular Fronts’? No. Thus our first squadron of warplanes left on 27 July 1936, and that same day we had our first dead.”

For his part, Hitler ordered an air fleet of transport planes to North Africa, from which they ferried the Nationalist army to Spain. He thus envisioned and enacted the first military airlift in history. As the Führer remarked later, “Franco ought to build a monument to the Ju-52”. The Junkers Ju-52, affectionately known as Tante Ju, or ‘Aunty Ju’, by its crews, was the aircraft that flew in Nationalist troops from North Africa. In fact, aviation was to play a more pivotal role in the Spanish Civil War than any previous conflict, and proved to be its decisive factor.

Most mainstream historians, discounting another influential component–ideological rivalry–have long insisted that Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were only interested in the conflict as an opportunity to test their weapons for a future, more serious confrontation. But larger considerations were actually at stake. Hitler eventually regretted his aid to the Nationalists, because Franco later declined to reciprocate when Germany wanted Andalusian bases for the capture of Gibraltar. Mussolini was genuinely alarmed at the prospect of a Red presence in the Mediterranean, however. The venerable Continent seemed about to be surrounded, especially in view of Stalin’s oft-repeated promise to transform the world into “a dictatorship of the proletariat” (i.e., the Soviet state) during his lifetime.

Franco’s appeal for help coincided with important, not unrelated events inside Italy itself. Beginning three years earlier, Mussolini had been faced with the most serious challenge to his power since he became Prime Minister. Giustiziae e Liberta was a well-financed, competently led underground of dedicated anti-Fascists formed in Turin. Although propaganda activities took place mostly in the city’s working class districts, specifically targeting the important Fiat manufacturing plant there, its leadership was made up mostly of upper middle class intellectuals, many of them with influential university positions.

They did not confine themselves to surreptitiously distributing handbills critical of the regime, but sought recruitment for its violent overthrow. Assassination of Fascist leaders, not excepting the Duce himself, was advocated and planned, and activists were busy infiltrating several important institutions, especially newspapers and schools. Although Giustiziae e Liberta organizers seemed to steer an indefinite political middle-road, the movement’s Marxist sympathies were not easily disguised, and their appeal to former leftists was beginning to attract followers among academics at some major northern universities.

Giustiziae e Liberta was a child of its time. With Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, Stalin was concerned that Fascism, no longer confined to Italy, was spreading, and needed to be stopped. Similar movements during the 1930s were active in virtually every European country, where supporters, like those of Britain’s Sir Oswald Moseley or Holland’s Anton Mussert, ran, collectively, into the hundreds of thousands. Soviet operatives were watched with growing concern by agents of OVRA, the Organizazione Vigilanza Repressione Antifascismo, or Fascist secret police. When moderate Fascists expressed misgivings about the implications of such a clandestine arm of government, Mussolini reminded them that even the benevolent Emperor Hadrian found need for a similar organization, the frumentarii. “Whenever respect for the State declines,” he said, “and the disintegrating and centrifugal tendencies of individuals and groups prevail, nations are headed for decay.”

After three months of investigation, the authorities were alarmed to discover that Giustiziae e Liberta was a hybrid underground of native Italian Communists and professionally-trained propagandists (some of them expert saboteurs) who had covertly entered the country from the Soviet Union. And the anti-Fascist underground found particularly fertile ground among the country’s numerically insignificant Jewish communities, mostly in Turin. One of its members later immigrated to England, where Massimo Coen’s Parla Londra! (‘London Calling!’) was a series of radio broadcasts blasting Mussolini in the Italian language and which were heard around the world. In fact, the founder of Giustiziae e Liberta, Tancredi Duccio Galimberti, was himself a Jew.

From its inception, however, Fascism was not inherently anti-Semitic, with minimal Jewish participation in its revolution, although some Jews held key positions in government, like the Grand Rabbi of Rome, who was likewise the capital’s political leader. During an interview in 1932 with the famous German-Jewish author and journalist, Emil Ludwig (patronym Cohn), Mussolini condemned anti-Semitism as divisive and “not part of the new Italy. Race: it is a feeling, not a reality. Ninety-five per cent a feeling”. Yet, he spoke out against the Jews in no uncertain terms for the first time just a year later, in August, when he felt his regime was seriously jeopardized by Giustiziae e Liberta. The following month, as some indication of his change of sentiment, he sent a personal delegation to the Nazis’ national congress in Nuremberg. It was headed by Professor Arturo Marpicati, Vice Secretary of the Fascist Party, who was allowed to address the delegates in Italian, and, for the first time, publicly broached the subject of cooperation between the two ideologically kindred movements.

In standard biographies of Mussolini he is portrayed as initially indifferent to the Jews, and only assumed the guise of anti-Semite in 1938 to curry Hitler’s favor. Actually, it was his fear of Giustiziae e Liberta with its Communist activists that elicited his first hostile statements about the ‘Jewish Question’ in 1933. The Race Law he passed five years later was exceptionally mild in comparison with Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, and did little more than forbid marriages between Italians and Jews.

The armed forces, police and all Fascist organizations were henceforward closed to Jews, but the royal House of Savoy, which effectively controlled the Army and Navy, prevented all Jews already enlisted from being removed. Even in the Fascist Party and government, their few Jewish members mostly continued to serve unmolested. During the war, Adolf Eichmann complained to his SS superiors that the French, Yugoslav and Greek zones occupied by Italians had become ‘Jewish refuges’. Italy’s Race Law mostly impacted Italian education, where schools of every level were required to teach students about ‘Jewish perfidy’.

Years before the passage of this anti-Semitic legislation, Mussolini was an ardent Zionist, going so far as to initiate important contacts with leading figures in the movement, including Bernard Baruch. The Duce heartily agreed that the only solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ was the creation of a Jewish state, where the world’s Jews could be resettled. At one time, he even proposed setting aside territory in conquered Abyssinia as ideally suited for the creation of a 20th Century Israel, if only because large numbers of Falasha Ethiopians already regarded themselves as Jewish. Baruch declined the offer on the grounds that urbanized Jews in the United States or Europe would never consent to living in East Africa. The Duce was somewhat put off by his rejection.

“If Ethiopia is good enough for my Italians,” he sniffed, “why isn’t it good enough for your Jews? You tell me they have been horribly persecuted in many parts of the world. If so, I imagine they would be happy to find refuge anywhere they can live in peace. Well, no one can say I didn’t try. It will take a more adept statesman than myself to solve this age-old problem to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Henceforward, Mussolini’s ardor for Zionist solutions noticeably cooled.

For nearly three years, an intense, underground war was waged between determined OVRA operatives and elusive Giustiziae e Liberta subversives. whose influence in northern Italy appears to have peaked by mid-1935. War in Ethiopia that year generated a national wave of patriotic fervor that mostly extinguished anti-Fascist activism, succeeding where OVRA’s counter-subversive measures failed. Even Vittorio Emanuelle Orlando, the prominent and outspokenly anti-Fascist liberal politician ousted from office by Mussolini after the March on Rome, arose from the obscurity of his legal practice to loudly praise the Ethiopian Campaign.6 Thanks to majority public support for the invasion, the fires of resistance were effectively dampened, although they were not entirely extinguished, and smoldered unseen until, eight years later, the changing winds of Mussolini’s fortune fanned them to life once again.

As some measure of Giustiziae e Liberta’s impact on the regime, of the 4,000 persons in Italy arrested for anti-government activities between 1927 and 1940, more than half took place from 1933 to 1936, the underground movement’s brief years of florescence. So too, eight of the ten men and women executed by the Fascists in that same thirteen-year period belonged to Giustiziae e Liberta.

Despite accusations of political oppression, Mussolini showed an early clemency toward his opponents he later came to regret. His most public enemy prior to achieving power in 1922 was Palmiro Togliatti, founder of the Italian Communist Party. After the March on Rome, Togliatti was unmolested until 1926, when, frustrated by Fascism’s spreading popularity, he began working underground for a Socialist revival. When that also failed, he fled to Moscow, but, courtesy of the Anglo-American invasion of Italy, returned during March 1944 to reestablish the Communist movement there.

Flying Rats II

Many government officials particularly criticized Mussolini for his mild treatment of Amedeo Adriano Bordiga. It was deemed too extreme even for his fellow Marxists, who expelled Bordiga from the Italian Communst Party; he was briefly interned in 1925, later freed under police surveillance.

The last arrests of Giustiziae e Liberta adherents had just been made when Mussolini received Franco’s request for help to defend his country from the same internal forces that bedeviled Italy. The Duce was hardly alone in his concern for events in Spain. They deeply touched most Italians, who regarded the Spaniards as not only fellow Latins, but Catholics suffering a wave of church desecrations and bloody atrocities at the hands of a militantly atheist government. People worried that the Russian calamity of 1917 was about to repeat itself, and this time not that far away. They clamored for a modern crusade to extirpate the Communist infidel from Western European soil.

But Italy’s military had been worn out by the Abyssinian experience. The Army and Air Force were in need of refitting. Mussolini was at first able to spare Franco only nineteen warplanes, which would be up against far more enemy aircraft. These included sixty French Breguet XIX reconnaissance bombers, forty Nieuport-Delage Ni.52 fighters, fourteen Dewoitine D. 371 and ten D.373 pursuit planes, plus 65 Potez Po.540 medium bombers, together with twenty British Vickers Wildebeest torpedo-bombers. Aiding the Italians were nine, wheezing biplane fighters which comprised the entire Nationalist Air Force, and ten German tri-motor transports.

On 29 July, the Morandi sailed from La Spezia for Melilla, a port in Spanish Morocco. The large freighter carried abundant supplies of ammunition, bombs, aviation fuel and aircraft for Franco’s forces. The next day, a flight of nine Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bombers landed at Nador outside Melilla, the first of some 720 aircraft and 6,000 aircrews Mussolini dispatched to the Nationalist cause. They were intended to support the more than 70,000 Italian soldiers that would eventually serve in Spain.

Throughout most of the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans continued to enjoy a numerical edge over their opponents, thanks to help from Russia and covert armaments smuggled across the Pyrenees by a sympathetic French Premiere, Leon Blum. At the behest of the League of Nations, along with most other world leaders, he had signed a non-intervention agreement that excluded outside involvement in the Civil War for the expressed purpose of containing hostilities in Iberia, thereby preventing them from widening into a general conflict. Although publicly avowing non-participation in the sharply drawn ideological struggle, Blum covertly slipped French arms and supplies to the Republicans, and allowed his border patrols to look the other way when leftist volunteers wanted to cross the mountains into Spain.

But other heads of foreign governments likewise paid little more than lip-service to official non-participation. U.S. President, Franklin Roosevelt, who vigorously condemned the Nationalists, did not prevent thousands of Americans from joining something called the ‘Abraham Lincoln Brigade’. This was an armed assortment of socialist intellectuals, fire-breathing Communists, bored dilettantes, desperately unemployed men, one-world idealists, and Jews alarmed at the rise of European anti-Semitism who fought on the Republican side.

With its Wagnerian name, Operation Feuerzauber (‘Magic Fire’) was supposed to have been nothing more than a training exercise provided to Franco’s mechanics by a handful of German aeronautical ‘advisors’ at the Tablada airfield, near Seville. From these humble, thinly disguised beginnings, however, a Kondor Legion of Messerschmitt fighters and Stuka dive-bombers swiftly evolved. League of Nations deputies entrusted with international enforcement of the non-intervention agreement had no control over Mussolini after he stomped out of their Geneva headquarters over the Ethiopian affair, and the Soviet Union was not a member, never having been asked to join, so neither Italy nor Russia were constrained from sending men and equipment to Spanish battlefields and airfields.

Republican warplanes unquestionably dominated the skies from the beginning of the conflict. But they were challenged during August by the arrival in Seville of Savoia Marchetti and Caproni Ca.135 aircraft in two bomber squadrons. Together with the original dozen Fiat fighters dispatched by Mussolini, they comprised an early nucleus for the Italians’ Aviazione Legonaria, which eventually fielded 250 aircraft of various types. And their pilots would achieve distinction as the world’s best during the mid-1930s.

Some, like Maresciallo Baschirotto, became aces, shooting down at least five enemy a piece. His experience in Spain prepared him for duty in World War Two, when he destroyed six more Curtiss P-40s, Beaufighters, and Hawker Hurricanes during the North African Campaign. Baschirotto’s last victory was over a Spitfire near the island-fortress of Pantelleria, on 20 April 1942. “It was a happy birthday present to the German Führer,” he told a reporter for one of Italy’s oldest, most widely read newspaper, the Corriere della Sera.7 Hitler had on that day celebrated his 53rd birthday.

His comrade in Spain was Group Commander Ernesto Botto, who received the Gold Medal for downing four Republican aircraft. Although he lost a leg during their destruction, he volunteered for frontline flying two years later, when Italy went to war against Britain. Botto went on to claim another three ‘kills’ in the skies over the Libyan Desert, earning him the nickname, Gamba di Ferro, or ‘Iron Leg’.

The aircraft men like Maresciallo Baschirotto and Ernesto Botto were supposed to fly for Franco were not always as physically fit as themselves. The SM.81, for example, had already seen service during the Abyssinian Campaign in transport and reconnaissance duties. Its three 700-hp Piaggio P.X RC.35 nine-cylinder radial engines gave the Pipistrello, or ‘Bat’, as the rugged aircraft was affectionately known by its crews, 340 km/hr at 9,800 meters, with a range of 2,000 kilometers carrying a bomb payload of 1,000 kilograms–not bad for 1936. The Caproni was a more modern, twin-engine medium-bomber with a sleek fuselage and twin-boom tail. Faster by 60 km/hr than the Pipistrello, and able to deliver an additional 1,000 kilos of bombs, its three 12.7mm machine-guns in nose, dorsal and ventral turrets foreshadowed future developments.

For escort, the bombers were protected by the Fiat CR.32, generally considered the best pursuit model at the beginning of the war, “soon gaining a reputation as one of the outstanding fighter biplanes of all time,” according to British aviation historian, David Mondey.8 Agile, quick and tough, the Fiat’s extraordinary aerobatic characteristics and top speed of 375 km/hr at 3,000 meters enabled its pilots to take on maneuverable ‘double-deckers’ like itself, such as the Soviets’ Super Chata, or more modern monoplanes, including the formidable Mosca. Eventually, 380 CR.32s participated in the Spanish Civil War. But during the conflict’s first months, just a handful of Italian bombers and fighters were General Franco’s first and, for some time, only support aircraft. Terribly outnumbered as they were in 1936, their technological superiority over the Republicans’ French and British machines, together with the Ethiopian experience of their aggressive crews, made the Aviazione Legonaria a force to be reckoned with from the start.

During late August 1936, the Italian airmen launched their first sorties against enemy strongholds in the north, where the Fiats swatted Nieuports and Dewoitines, while the Pipistrellos and Capronis were dead-on target with their destructive payloads. To combat these intruders, a famous French Communist author, Alfred Malraux, helped raise twelve million francs for the purchase of new warplanes as needed additions to his Escuadrilla Espaía. Based in occupied Madrid, his fiery oratory attracted foreign volunteer pilots from France, Britain and Czechoslovakia. Not to be outdone, Mussolini rushed additional squadrons of CR.32s to Seville.

They arrived just in time to confront a major enemy offensive during September, and contributed decisively to the battle. Malraux’s elite squadron was badly mauled, as the Popular Front offensive folded under the bombs of SM.81s and CA.135s. By December, with half its aircraft destroyed, the Escuadrilla Espaía disbanded; survivors melted into the regular Republican Air Force. Replacements came in the form of fifty Russian SB-2 Katuska bombers and I-15 Chata fighters. Later, after the New Year, Leon Blum quietly slipped another twenty state-of-the-art Loire 46 pursuit planes across the Pyrenees. More troublesome for the Italians was the appearance of a remarkably advanced Soviet bomber, the Tupelev SB-2, over Cordoba. It was faster than the quick Fiats, and could even out-climb them after dropping its bombs.

For weeks, the unassailable Tupelevs ranged over Nationalist territory, wrecking havoc on troop concentrations and supply depots. All attempts to intercept them met with failure. In January 1937, a Spanish pilot, Garcia Morato, noticed that the bombers were in Cordoba skies every morning at precisely the same time and altitude. Jumping into his CR.32 before they arrived, he climbed to 5,030 meters, well above the lower-flying enemy. They appeared like clock-work, and Morato pounced on them, his 7.7mm Breda machine-guns blazing. Two of the swift Russian aircraft fell flaming to earth, and the rest frantically jettisoned their payloads to beat a hasty retreat. Nationalist fighter pilots learned from his experience. If they were given sufficient advance warning, their Fiat fighter-planes, with remarkable service ceilings of nearly 8,840 meters and a swift rate of climb, could dive on the redoubtable Tupelevs from above.

But the speedy bombers were not the only quality aircraft sent from the USSR. Squadrons of nimble biplane fighters, the Polikarpov I-15, arrived in Madrid, together with numbers of an altogether different design, the I-16. The stubby monoplane more physically resembled a trophy-racer of the era than a military machine. It was the product of a prison experience endured by Dmitri Gregorovich and Nikolai Nikolayevich Polikarpov.

By late 1932, their new I-15 was despised by Red Air Force test-pilots unhappy with its instability at high speeds, and its gull-wings which prevented the airmen from seeing the horizon while in flight and obscuring the ground on approach, making landings hazardous. Enraged by the negative reports of his test-pilots, Stalin threw Russia’s leading aeronautical inventors into prison, together with every member of their design teams, until they came up with a fighter for the Soviet Union at least as good as contemporary examples from other nations. With their freedom and, ultimately, their lives at stake, the hapless engineers, still behind bars, put their heads together for the creation of an aircraft ahead of its time.

The I-16’s successful debut on New Year’s Eve 1933 coincided with the designers’ release from behind bars. An innovative, retractable landing-gear made it the first monoplane of its kind to enter service. The cantilever, or internally braced, low metal wing, plus all-wood monocoupe fuselage, resulted in a solid form easy to maintain in frontline conditions, able to take terrific punishment, and strong enough to survive the high-speed maneuvers that broke apart lesser aircraft. As one commentator observed, “its rolls and loops could be quite startling.” Powered by a 1,000-hp M-62 radial engine, Polikarpov’s best effort flew higher by 670 meters and faster by 115 km/hr than Italy’s finest fighter, and totally outclassed the Heinkel 51, Germany’s early rival for Spanish skies.

Red Sea Convoys

HMS Kimberley (photographed in 1942)

Italian destroyer Pantera

The first of the Red Sea convoys, collectively the BN/BS series, consisting of nine ships including six tankers, gathered in the Gulf of Aden on 2 July. Thereafter these convoys sailed up and down the Red Sea on a regular schedule. Admiral Balsamo attempted to attack this traffic, but the war’s opening months held little but frustration for his destroyers. On six occasions in July, August, and September, they sortied at night in response to aerial reports of Allied vessels but in every case failed to make contact. Aircraft and the surviving submarines did little better. Guglielomotti torpedoed the Greek tanker Atlas (4,008 GRT) from Convoy BN4 on 6 September 1940, while high-level bombing attacks damaged the steamship Bhima (5,280 GRT) from BN5, which four Italian destroyers had failed to locate, on 20 September.

As Italian warships burned their oil reserves on unsuccessful sorties, the Allied Red Sea Squadron grew stronger, deploying by the end of August four light cruisers, three destroyers, and eight sloops. Other warships passed through on their way to and from the Mediterranean. In September, as traffic volume swelled, the Mediterranean Fleet lent the newly arrived antiaircraft cruiser Coventry, which alternated with Carlisle along the Aden–Suez route to provide extra protection against air attacks.

By October the Italian ships faced mechanical breakdowns, the increasing exhaustion of crews by the extreme climate, and a growing shortage of fuel. Nonetheless, they continued to sail. On the evening of 20 October, four destroyers weighed anchor to search for BN7, which aerial reconnaissance had spotted sailing north. The plan called for the slower and more heavily armed Pantera and Leone to distract the escort while Sauro and Nullo slipped in to send a spread of torpedoes toward the merchant ships.

Attack on Convoy BN7 and Battle of Harmil Island, 20–21 October 1940, 2320–0640

Conditions: Bright moon, calm sea

Allied ships—

BN7 Escort (Captain H. E. Horan): CL: Leander (NZ) (F); DD: KimberleyD2; DS: Auckland (NZ), Indus (IN), Yarra (AU); MS: Derby, Huntley

BN7: thirty-two merchant ships and tankers

Italian ships—

Section I (Commander Moretti degli Adimari): DD: Sauro (F), Nullo Sunk

Section II (Commander Paolo Aloisi): DD: Pantera (F), Leone

The convoy timed its progress to pass Massawa around midnight. The moon was bright, but haze reduced visibility toward the African coast. At 2115 the Italian sections separated, and at 2321 Pantera detected smoke off her starboard bow. She reported the contact to Sauro and began maneuvering at twenty-two knots to position the low-hanging moon behind the contact.

BN7 was thirty-five miles north-northwest of Jabal-al-Tair Island (itself 110 miles east-northeast of Massawa) when Yarra, zigzagging in company with Auckland, sighted Captain Aloisi’s ships ahead. Yarra challenged and Pantera replied with a pair of torpedoes at 2331 and then another pair at 2334, at ranges fifty-five and sixty-five hundred yards, respectively. Shooting over Yarra, she “lobbed a few shells” into the convoy. According to a wartime British account, “a lifeboat in the commodore’s ship was damaged by splinters, but otherwise no harm was done.” Leone, which trailed Pantera by 875 yards, never fixed a target and thus did not fire torpedoes.

Yarra saw the torpedo flashes from broad on her port bow and turned toward the enemy. Both sloops opened fire as torpedoes boiled past, narrowly missing. The Italian ships altered away, shooting with their aft mounts. Aloisi reported explosions and claimed two torpedo hits, but in fact, his weapons missed. Kimberley was trailing the convoy. She rang up thirty knots and steered northwest to close the action. Leander, sailing on the convoy’s port beam, headed southwest, while the sloops and minesweepers stayed with the merchantmen. Pantera and Leone, considering their mission successfully accomplished, continued west-southwest and broke contact. They eventually returned to Massawa via the south channel.

After the gunfire died away, Captain Horan steered Leander northwest to cover Harmil Channel believing the enemy ships had retired in that direction.

Upon receiving Pantera’s report, Sauro and Nullo had turned to clear the area while the first group attacked and to put themselves in a favorable position relative to the moon. This involved a ninety-degree port turn at 0016 on 21 October and another at 0050. The section then headed southeast, but for nearly an hour it encountered nothing. Finally, at 0148, Leander and another ship hove into view. Sauro snapped off a single torpedo at the cruiser (another misfired). In response Leander lofted star shell, and then ten broadsides flashed from her main batteries in two minutes before she lost sight of the target. Italian accounts say this engagement occurred at sixteen hundred yards, while Leander’s report stated the enemy was more than eight thousand yards away.

Sauro turned south by southwest and at 0207 attempted another torpedo attack against the convoy. One weapon misfired, and although Sauro claimed a hit with the other, it missed. At the same time Nullo detected flashes that she believed came from an enemy torpedo launch, and within minutes a lookout shouted that wakes were streaking toward the Italian destroyer’s bow. At 0212 Sauro turned north and disengaged, eventually circling behind the British and taking the south channel to Massawa. Nullo’s captain, however, put his helm over even harder, “because it was [his] intention to attack, being still in an opportune position to launch against the convoy, before taking station in formation.” However, the rudder jammed for several minutes, causing Nullo to circle and lose contact with Sauro.

At 0220 Leander’s spotlights fastened onto “a vessel painted light grey proceeding from left to right”—in fact, Nullo steaming north. The cruiser engaged from forty-six hundred yards off the Italian’s starboard bow. Nullo returned fire, first against “destroyers” spotted astern (probably Auckland) and then at Leander. The ships dueled for about ten minutes. The Italian enjoyed one advantage: she employed flashless powder (the British noted only two enemy salvos), whereas British muzzles flared brightly with each discharge. Leander fired eight blind salvos (“little could be seen of their effect”), but several rounds nonetheless hit home, damaging Nullo’s gyrocompass and gunnery director. With this the Italian destroyer abandoned her attack attempt and turned west-northwest running for Harmil Channel at thirty knots. In the two actions Leander fired 129 6-inch rounds.

Guessing Nullo’s intention, the cruiser pursued in the correct direction. At 0300 Kimberley joined, and at 0305 Leander turned back, “appreciating that the enemy was drawing away from her at the rate of seven knots and that the convoy might be attacked.” Kimberley continued, hoping to intercept.

The British destroyer arrived off Harmil Island before dawn. At 0540 her lookouts reported a shape to the south-southeast, and she closed to investigate. Nullo’s lookouts likewise reported a contact. The sharp angle of approach made it impossible to be certain, but the Italian captain assumed it was Sauro, especially when it seemed to signal the Harmil Island station. He was more “worried about the shallows scattered around the mouth of the northeast passage and above all of the 3.7 meter sandbank immediately north of his estimated 0500 position.”

At 0553 the British destroyer opened fire from 12,400 yards. Surprised, Nullo took four minutes to reply and at 0605 swung sharply from a northwest heading to a south-by-southwest course. By 0611 the range was down to 10,300 yards. Due to her prior damage, Nullo’s gunners fired over open sights, while human chains passed shells up from the magazine. Harmil Island’s battery of four 4.7-inch guns joined the action at 0615 from eighteen thousand yards. At the same time, with the range now eighty-five hundred yards, Kimberley turned south, emitting black funnel smoke, causing Nullo’s gunners to think they had scored a hit.

At 0620 Nullo scraped a reef, opening her hull to flooding and damaging a screw. Then, while the ship was setting course to round Harmil Island, a shell exploded in the forward engine room and a second slammed into the aft engine room. Nullo skewed sharply to the left and lost all power; splinters swept the upper works. The captain ordered his men to prepare to abandon ship while he angled the ship toward Harmil in an attempt to run it aground. The aft mount continued in action until the heel became excessive.

Having expended 115 salvoes, Kimberley launched a torpedo to dispatch her adversary; it missed, so she closed range and uncorked another. The second torpedo slammed into Nullo at 0635 and blasted her in two. Meanwhile, the Harmil battery finally found the range, and a shell struck Kimberley’s engine room, wounding three men. Splinters cut the steam pipes; the British destroyer lost power and came to a halt.

Kimberley’s men frantically patched the damage while the drifting ship’s guns remained in action, shooting forty-five rounds of HE from no. 3 mount, and achieving some hits that wounded four of the shore battery’s crew. After a few long minutes, the destroyer restored partial power and pulled away at fifteen knots. The shore battery fired its final shots at 0645, when the range had opened to nineteen thousand yards. During the battle Kimberley expended 596 SAP and 97 HE rounds.

After she was clear the destroyer lost steam pressure again. Finally Leander arrived and towed Kimberley to Port Sudan. Nullo remained above water; her guns ended up equipping a shore battery. On 21 October three Blenheims reported destroying a wreck east of Harmil Island. This led the British to conclude two enemy ships had been involved in the action.

The Aden command faulted the escort (except for Kimberley) for demonstrating a lack of aggressiveness, although deserting the convoy to chase unknown numbers of enemy destroyers through a murky night does not in retrospect seem the best course of action either. The Italian ships, although outnumbered, delivered two hit-and-run torpedo attacks, according to their plan. However, while using widely separated divisions increased the probability of finding the enemy, a natural consideration given the history of failed interception attempts, it also guaranteed that the Italian forces would lack the punch to take on the escort and deliver a meaningful attack. In fact, the first Italian attack seemed more formulaic than a serious attempt to cause damage.

The Italian East African squadron conducted another (fruitless) sortie on 3 December 1940. It aborted a mission planned for early January after British aircraft damaged Manin, one of the participants, and on 24 January it sortied again, without results. On the night of 2 February 1941, however, three destroyers departed Massawa and deployed in a rake formation to search for a large convoy known to be at sea.

Attack on Convoy BN14, 3 February 1941

Conditions: n/a

Allied ships—

Convoy Escort: CL: Caledon; DD: Kingston; DS: Indus (IN), Shoreham

Convoy BN14: thirty-nine freighters

Italian ships—

DD: Pantera, Tigre, Sauro

Sauro spotted the enemy, made a sighting report, and immediately maneuvered to attack. She launched three torpedoes at a group of steamships and then, a minute later, at another dimly seen target marked by a large cloud of smoke. She then turned away at speed. Her two sisters did not receive the report, but ten minutes later Pantera stumbled across the enemy and also fired torpedoes. The Italians heard explosions and later claimed “probable” hits on two freighters. Tigre never made contact.

On her way to Massawa’s south channel, Sauro encountered Kingston. Out of torpedoes, the Italian retreated at full speed. Concerned that the British were attempting another ambush, the squadron concentrated on Sauro and radioed for air support at dawn. In the event, the three destroyers safely made port. The Italian East African press reported two freighters as probably hit, but despite this claim, all torpedoes missed.

By April 1941 Imperial spearheads were probing Massawa’s defensive perimeter. With Supermarina’s approval, Rear Admiral Mario Bonetti, Balsamo’s replacement from December 1940, ordered a last grand gesture—an attack by the three largest destroyers (Leone, Pantera, and Tigre) against Port Suez, five hundred miles north, and a concurrent raid by the smaller destroyers Battisti, Manin, and Sauro against Port Sudan. The British Middle Eastern command had considered such an attack possible and had reinforced Port Suez with two J-class destroyers and sent Eagle’s experienced air group south to Port Sudan, while the carrier waited for mines to be swept from the Suez Canal so she could proceed south.

The Italian venture ran into problems early when Leone struck an uncharted rock forty-five miles out of Massawa. Flooding and fires in her engine room forced her crew to abandon ship. Her two companions returned to port, as the rescue operation left insufficient time for them to continue the mission.

On the afternoon of 2 April the remaining Italian destroyers sailed once again, this time against Port Sudan, 265 miles north. British aircraft attacked them about two hours out of port but caused no damage. Then Battisti suffered engine problems and scuttled herself on the Arabian coast. The other four continued at top speed through the night and by dawn were thirty miles short of their objective. However, Eagle’s Swordfish squadrons intervened, sinking Sauro at 0715. The other ships headed for the opposite shore, under attack as they went. Bombs crippled Manin at 0845. She eventually capsized and sank about a hundred miles northeast of Port Sudan. Pantera and Tigre made it to the Arabian coast and were scuttled there.

Caught off guard by the Italian sortie, British warships rushed north. At 1700 Kingston found Pantera’s and Tigre’s wrecks. The two ships had already been worked over by Wellesley bombers, but Kingston shelled Pantera’s hulk and then torpedoed it, just to be sure

The biggest Italian naval success in the Red Sea was a Parthian shot that occurred on 8 April, with Massawa’s defenses breached and ships scuttling themselves on all sides. MAS213, a World War I relic no longer capable of even fifteen knots, ambushed the old light cruiser Capetown, which was escorting minesweepers north of the port, and scored a torpedo hit from just over three hundred yards. After spending a year in repair, the cruiser sat out the rest of the war as an accommodation ship.

This was the Italian navy’s final blow in East Africa. The capture of Massawa relieved Great Britain of the need to convoy the entire length of the Red Sea and released valuable escorts for other duties. On 10 June an Indian battalion captured Assab, Italy’s last Red Sea outpost, eliminating a pair of improvised torpedo boats. After that President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the narrow sea a nonwar zone, permitting the entry of American shipping.

However, German aircraft continued to exert a distant influence over the Red Sea, by mining the Suez Canal and attacking shipping that accumulated to the south of the canal. As late at 18 September Admiral Cunningham complained to Admiral Pound that “the Red Sea position is unsatisfactory . . . about 5 of 6 ships attacked, one sunk [Steel Seafarer (6,000 GRT)] and two damaged. . . . The imminent arrival at Suez of the monster liners is giving me much anxiety. They are crammed with men and we can’t afford to have them hit up.” In October 1941 the Suez Escort Force still tied up four light cruisers, two fleet destroyers, two Hunt-class destroyers, and two sloops. The British maintained a blockade off French Somaliland until December 1942.


Franz Joseph’s Empire, Sisi, and Hungary I

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph with his troops at the Battle of Solferino, 1859

On 6 October 1849, the former prime minister of Hungary, Count Louis Batthyány, was taken into the courtyard of the main gaol of Pest. An Austrian military court had condemned him to hang for treason on account of his role in promoting Hungary’s independence, but he had slit his throat several days earlier in an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. So the court changed the penalty to death by firing squad. Batthyány was so weak that he had to be carried to the place of execution; he died slumped on a chair. Several hours before, at five thirty AM, thirteen generals in what had been the army of independent Hungary were also executed in Arad Castle on the same grounds of treason, the majority by hanging. The noose was a harsh punishment, for death came not from the sudden breaking of the neck but from slow suffocation. It was intended to be humiliating, too, for the victim writhed in his agony and, at expiry, his bowels usually opened.

The executions of Batthyány and the generals came at the end of a bloody war between Hungary and the Habsburgs that had begun with Jelačić’s invasion. The country had held out for almost a year—its resources and Hungarian population ably mobilized by Kossuth and its armies expertly commanded. Even so, it was only in April 1849 that the Hungarian government proclaimed the country’s formal independence, deposing ‘the perjured house of Habsburg’ and appointing Kossuth governor and regent. Until then, Hungary’s politicians had held by the conviction that they were acting lawfully, in accordance with the terms of the April Laws, as granted by Emperor Ferdinand.

Finally, in June 1849 a Russian army invaded Hungary at the request of the new emperor, Franz Joseph (1848–1916). With the Austrian general von Haynau pressing from the west and General Paskevich’s Russians from the north, resistance collapsed. Kossuth meanwhile escaped into the Ottoman Empire. For the remainder of his long life (he died in 1894), Kossuth inveighed against Habsburg rule in Hungary, electrifying audiences in Great Britain and the United States with his oratory. His claim that he had learned English from reading Shakespeare in prison may not be true, but the story enhanced his reputation and the cause of a free Hungary. Visiting England in 1851, Kossuth received a rapturous welcome, feted by tens of thousands in every city in which he spoke. By contrast, when Haynau came to London, he was set upon by the draymen of Barclay and Perkins brewery, pelted with dung, and chased down Borough High Street.

The killing of Batthyány and the generals was the work of the young Franz Joseph, who rejected his ministers’ proposal of a comprehensive amnesty. But the emperor was not yet finished with ‘the scaffold and the bloodbath’, as one former prime minister put it, and he gave Haynau free rein in Hungary. A hundred executions followed, and several thousand long gaol sentences. Even when the Austrian prime minister, Prince Schwarzenberg, ordered Haynau to desist from killing, he carried on, until finally dismissed in July 1850. Haynau was sufficiently insensitive to buy on retirement an estate in Hungary. He never understood why his neighbours did not invite him to dinner.

Emergency rule continued in Hungary until 1854, and some offences remained under the jurisdiction of military courts for several years longer. On top of this, Hungary’s counties were abolished and replaced by administrative districts headed by appointees of the interior ministry in Vienna. Croatia, Transylvania, and the Banat together with the neighbouring Vojvodina were additionally ruled separately from Vienna as crown lands. All institutions of self-government were abolished, and German was made the language of administration. Tasks previously performed by the counties and noble landlords were now undertaken by bureaucrats, many of whom were recruited from elsewhere in the Austrian Empire.

The breakup of Hungary into districts ruled from Vienna was part of a plan that Schwarzenberg (or at least someone close to him) had hatched as early as December 1848. Developments elsewhere were more haphazard. As one of his first acts, Franz Joseph had closed the imperial parliament that had been meeting in Kroměříž. In the early hours of 7 March 1849, troops with bayonets had entered the castle where the parliament met and blocked the entrances, after which they had scoured the city, arresting several of the more radical deputies. In place of the constitutional proposals the parliament had devised, Franz Joseph imposed a constitution of his own, which as he explained was more suited to the times and less influenced by remote and theoretical ideas.

The Decreed or March Constitution was in some respects a good one. It was centralist in the sense that it envisaged one elected parliament for the whole of the Austrian Empire, including Hungary, a single central government, and one coronation. Although the emperor retained strong powers, there were layers of elected bodies, which possessed a devolved authority. The constitution additionally confirmed the abolition of serfdom previously agreed by the imperial parliament, legal equality, and that ‘all national groups are equal and that every national group has an inviolable right to the use and cultivation of its language and nationality.’

For all its merits, the constitution was a cynical ploy. Franz Joseph was out to make his mark, and he was lured by Schwarzenberg’s dream of joining the entire Austrian Empire to the German Confederation to create a massive new territorial bloc in Central Europe, in which the Habsburg emperor would be politically dominant. To win over the German princes to the scheme, Franz Joseph needed to appear as a constitutionalist who was ready to be bound by legal constraints. But by the middle of 1851, it was clear that the German rulers would not agree to a merger with the Austrian Empire, preferring to renew the Confederation set up after the defeat of France in 1814. By this time, too, Franz Joseph was casting envious eyes on Napoleon III of France, who had, as the emperor admiringly described, ‘seized the reins of power in his hands’ and made himself much more than ‘a machine for writing his signature.’

Implementation of the March Constitution went at a snail’s pace, and its provisions on local elected government were drastically pared back. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1851, Franz Joseph issued a series of instructions, known collectively as the Sylvester Patent, that abolished the March Constitution outright and gave himself the sole right to make laws. (31 December is St Sylvester’s Day; a patent was a type of decree.) The coup was completed after the death of Schwarzenberg in April 1852, when Franz Joseph declared that he would now act in the capacity of prime minister.

The Sylvester Patent introduced a decade of neo-absolutism or neo-Caesarism, when Franz Joseph ruled as a dictator. Both terms are recent ones—at the time, the type of government practised by Franz Joseph was known simply as absolutism or more tellingly as bureaucratic absolutism, for the emperor imposed his will through the administrative apparatus. But the bureaucrats also had their own political agenda, which was to maintain the reforming programme of Joseph II, with its belief in the wisdom of state management and in social and economic progress directed from above. They even had a name for themselves: the ‘party of Enlightenment.’

Altogether, the Habsburg civil service numbered in the 1850s around fifty thousand persons, but this included junior and ancillary staff. About ten thousand belonged to the higher ‘policy service’ (Konzeptdienst), and almost all of these had received a university education, mostly in law. Those in the higher branches were overwhelmingly liberal in disposition and outlook, and disproportionately represented in the reading clubs and, during 1848, in the politics of reform. They were liberals in the sense of believing in individual empowerment, through education, legal equality, freedom of the press and of association, and the removal of economic constraints. They saw a strong state as the vehicle for a liberal programme of reform and were prepared to make concessions to it—press freedom was an early casualty. But by endorsing state intervention, the bureaucrats ‘fattened the state up’, turning it into a Leviathan that devoured the individual freedoms that their liberalism had originally championed.

The achievements of bureaucratic absolutism were massive—as one historian has put it, ‘a Josephinist fantasy come true.’ There were new institutes of science, regulations on safety in mines and the workplace, a penny-stamp postal service, new roads, telegraphs, and railways. By 1854, a thousand kilometres of track had been laid, and the Linz to České Budějovice (Budweis) line, originally built in 1832, was converted from horse to steam power. For the roads, almost ten million cubic metres of stone were laid in just three years. Experts recruited from the London Board of Works helped to dredge and canalize the Danube and Tisza rivers. Infrastructural expansion was underpinned by burgeoning coal and iron production, by a developing banking sector for commercial loans, and by the removal of customs barriers that made the Austrian Empire into a common market. Vienna, too, was transformed, with the old city walls torn down and a spacious ‘Ring’ built in its place to house the new class of entrepreneurs and industrialists created by economic modernization.

The peasantry had been freed by Joseph II in the sense that they were able to leave the land and marry without the lord’s consent. But the land they farmed still belonged to the lord, on which account they owed him dues and services performed by hand. In the early months of the revolution, the Hungarian diet had committed itself to giving the peasants the lands they farmed, but elsewhere promises were vague and piecemeal, with the terms of emancipation deferred until the imperial parliament met. The difficulties were that the lords needed some sort of compensation for their loss and that the land that the peasants farmed was of varying legal quality—some was ancestral peasant property, farmed over generations; other land was leased from the lord under contract, or else it was common land or had been cleared by the peasant personally from scrub.

The imperial parliament had shirked its obligation to facilitate emancipation by hiding behind generalities. After 1849, however, the government made a determined attempt to resolve the issues arising from emancipation. Ancestral land became the peasants’, in its entirety, with no compensation paid to landlords. All the rest was compensated for, with the state bearing the brunt of the burden, which it did through the expedient of printing bonds and distributing them slowly. The terms of compensation were worked out by commissions, and the new landowning peasants were obliged to enter details of their properties in land registers. These also recorded liens—whether the property was now leased out or mortgaged—and neighbours, kinsmen, and lenders frequently challenged the contents of the registers. The courts in Hungary alone were in the second half of the century handling seldom fewer than three hundred thousand cases a year of disputed entries, with a backlog extending to over a million.

In the past, minor disputes such as these would have gone in the first instance to manor courts, but with the abolition of landlordism had also gone the landowners’ courts and their gratis contribution to the administration of the countryside. The state had now to fill the gap, establishing across the empire 1,500 new courts and supervisory offices. Bureaucrats were despatched to the countryside to see to the implementation of directives from the centre. Their task was a hard one. The interior minister, Alexander Bach, ordered civil servants in Hungary to buy an uncomfortable uniform based on a Hungarian cavalryman’s, but it cost half a year’s salary and earned them ridicule as ‘Bach hussars.’ Underresourced and living in shabby conditions, they found it impossible to reconcile their obligations with the day-to-day realities of the countryside. Arriving in one Hungarian village, a ‘Bach hussar’ found there to be no prison: convicts were instead lodged unguarded in an inn and given a daily allowance for food.

Bach’s instructions for the civil service stressed the importance of stability, routine, and predictability of outcome in the legal and administrative process. To that end, the Austrian civil law was extended in the 1850s across the whole of the Austrian Empire, replacing in Hungary and Transylvania the arcane and largely unwritten customary law. But to meet local circumstances, the law had to be modified and adapted, thus robbing it of its regularity and uniformity. On top of this, the medley of official circulars, formulary books, clarifications, edicts, and modifications emanating from the centre rendered the law even less certain and its application in individual circumstances unpredictable. Bewildered bureaucrats frequently referred up, so that even trivial matters ended up on Bach’s desk, never to be resolved.

But there was uncertainty at the top too. Franz Joseph was unaccountable, unconstrained by either institutions or a constitution. He was inept but convinced in his own superior wisdom. In an example that shocked the British ambassador, he insisted in early 1852 that a cavalry parade take place on the cobblestones before the Schönbrunn Palace in a deep frost, even though warned of the danger. The horses toppled, killing two cuirassiers. Franz Joseph’s handling of foreign policy was equally calamitous. He did not support Tsar Nicholas in the Crimean War (1853–1856), thus letting down the ally who had come to his rescue in 1849, but neither did he back the British and the French against Russia. Diplomatically isolated, he was now prey for Napoleon III of France, whose army swept through Lombardy in 1859, assigning the province to the kingdom of Piedmont in exchange for France taking Nice and Savoy. It did not help that halfway through the campaign Franz Joseph appointed himself commander. His generalship led directly to the bloodbath of the Battle of Solferino. Two years later, having overrun the Habsburg-ruled duchies of Parma, Modena, and Tuscany, the king of Piedmont was proclaimed king of Italy.

Italian Air Force Special Units; Italy, 1942

(1) Tenente, Air Force Assault Engineer Battalion (ADRA)

This is the khaki cotton version of the typical collarless jacket of Italian special forces, otherwise cut like the ‘Sahariana’. Note the matching beret, wide paratrooper’s trousers and black jump-boots; an officer’s ‘Sam Browne’ belt with Beretta M34 holster; and the special forces dagger. In the Regia Aeronautica only special forces wore the beret; it bears the Air Force officer’s cap badge of a crown over a wreathed eagle in gold, on grey-blue backing, and the two stars of his rank. The lieutenant’s two rank stripes in gold on grey-blue, the upper one with a diamond-shaped ‘curl’, are worn on the cuff, but the other insignia are all of Army type. Blue paratroop lapel patches bear the guastatori symbol of a winged sword set on a flaming petard, above the national silver star. On his left breast he wears the Air Force’s 1942 gold metal parachutist’s ‘wings’. On the left sleeve is the badge then worn by all qualified paratroopers, above the wreathed sword badge of a qualified Ardito assault trooper. The ribbons are those of the Air Force Silver Medal, War Merit Cross, and 2 Years’ War Service Badge.

(1a) Metal breast badge of the Arditi Distruttori Regia Aeronautica (ADRA).

(2) Paracadutista, 1st Air Force Parachute Battalion

Over blue-grey Regia Aeronautica uniform he wears the standard Army paratroop helmet with camouflaged cover, a camouflaged jump-smock, a narrower version of the ‘Samurai’ ammo vest (so as not to interfere with the parachute harness), knee pads and jump-boots. His Beretta M38A SMG is carried in a canvas case secured to his waist by a 10m (c.30ft) rope, and at the ankle by a sleeve. When his parachute opens he will lift the muzzle out of the ankle sleeve and lower the case to dangle below him until he lands. (To hit the ground with it still stowed as illustrated would obviously result in broken bones.)

(3) Primo aviere, ‘Loreto’ Battalion

This corporal carrying a Breda 30 ‘automatic rifle’ (light machine gun), photographed while lined up for inspection, wears surprisingly inadequate equipment: a greenish-painted Army belt with a single rifle cartridge pouch and a bayonet, but neither the neck support sling, nor the cleaning-kit pouch and pistol prescribed for an LMG crew ‘No.1’. The battalion received these Czech steel helmets, painted blue-grey with a black Air Force stencil. Otherwise he wears standard Air Force blue-grey service uniform, with bright blue collar patches. On the left sleeve above his red rank chevrons is this battalion’s yellow sword-and-wings badge.

The birth of the Air Force special forces was also prompted by the plan to assault Malta, although in their case only very late in the day. This was due to the belated decision to include in the plan the rapid seizure and preparation of Hal Far airfield in order to bring in air-landing troops of the `La Spezia’ Division.

The 1° Reparto Paracadutisti della Regia Aeronautica (1st Air Force Paratroop Unit), tasked with capturing Hal Far, was formed only on 12 May 1942 at Tarquinia, under command of LtCol Edvino Dalmas. Entirely composed of volunteers, it had an HQ (5 officers, 4 NCOs, 20 rankers), and ten squads each with an officer, 2 NCOs and 25 rankers. Most were armed with the standard 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano M91 carbine, the officers and NCOs with the 9mm Beretta M38A submachine gun, and their intensive training included the use of explosives and sabotage techniques. Part of the unit was made up of technical specialists tasked with returning the airfield facilities to serviceable condition as soon as possible.

Since this latter was a key part of the overall plan, on 10 June 1942 another unit was formed, at Cameri airfield near Novara, specifically tasked with this role. This Battaglione `Loreto’ was intended both to take part in the restoration of facilities at Hal Far and to garrison and defend it. Its first two companies were to be deployed in defence. The 1st Co had 6 officers, 17 NCOs and 172 airmen, being composed of one machine-gun platoon armed with 20mm AA cannon, and three light machine-gun platoons. The 2nd Co had 5 officers, 12 NCOs and 200 airmen. Officers and NCOs were equipped with SMGs, most others with the M91 carbine. The 3rd Co, responsible for the technical services, comprised 8 officers, 9 NCOs and 199 airmen, onequarter of them technicians. The 4th Co, responsible for logistics and administration, had 8 officers, 14 NCOs and 185 airmen, again one-quarter of them technicians.

1st Air Force Assault Regiment `Amedeo d’Aosta’

After the decision to cancel the invasion of Malta the Air Force paratroop unit moved to Arezzo, Tuscany, in late summer 1942. Most of the personnel were granted leave, and the unit was almost forgotten until November, when the Allied Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria concentrated the minds of the high command. Both the 1st Paratroop Unit and the `Loreto’ Bn were sent at first to Sicily; and there, on 16 November at Marsala, these units were merged to form the 1° Reggimento d’Assalto della Regia Aeronautica `Amedeo d’Aosta’ (1st Air Force Assault Regiment `Amedeo d’Aosta’ – named after the Air Force general who had been Viceroy of Ethiopia). The regiment had its own HQ and the newly redesignated 1st Paratroop Bn, and was also originally intended to include the Battaglione Arditi Distruttori della Regia Aeronautica (ADRA). This Air Force Assault Engineer Bn, which was still forming, would eventually be an independent unit. On that same day the Paratroop Bn, only 241 strong, landed in Tunisia. After a short pause at Bizerta, where three of its ten squads were left, it was deployed westwards to face the advancing US and British forces. On the evening of 20 November the understrength battalion, along with the German Paratroop Engineer Bn `Witzig’, was deployed on the Djebel Abjod close to the Algerian border. The following day both German and Italian paratroopers attacked the advancing British forces, taking them by surprise, but soon faced strong counterattacks. Out of 81 men the Italians lost 4 killed, 7 wounded and abandoned, and 44 missing; LtCol Dalmas was also wounded, but was evacuated to Italy. Reinforced by the three squads from Bizerta on 23 November, the paratroopers held their positions until the 25th when, under heavy artillery fire, both Germans and Italians withdrew some 50km (31 miles) eastwards. What was left of the Air Force Paratroop Bn was then deployed in rear areas, to defend the airfields of Tunis, Gabes and Sfax against Allied raids.

The first two companies of the `Loreto’ Bn were shipped from Sicily to Tunis aboard destroyers on 15 January 1943; the 3rd and 4th Cos were left in Sicily to repair airfields (in May they would be moved to Sardinia to carry out the same duties). At the same time the new commanding officer of the 1st Air Force Assault Regt arrived in Tunisia; he found that the unit had been reduced to 6 of the original 11 officers, 12 NCOs out of 28, and 174 airmen out of 274. He requested replacements for men, weapons and equipment before the unit could again be employed as infantry (the paratroopers had even been sent to Tunisia without steel helmets).

His request was only answered when the situation worsened still further; in April 1943 elements of both the Paratroop and `Loreto’ battalions were regrouped and reinforced using spare Air Force personnel, to be deployed at Enfidaville under the Italian First Army. At this time the regiment had an HQ company; the Paratroop Bn with three companies (the first two mainly paratroopers, the MG Co made up with new Air Force personnel); and the `Loreto’ Bn with four companies (again, the first two from the original unit, the others from new personnel) – armed with a few more SMGs, but still with only (on paper) 18 MGs and 42 LMGs. Attached to the `Pistoia’ Inf Div, the cobbled-together regiment fought until the end, at Wadi Akarit and Enfidaville, until it surrendered in May near Mateur. On 2 July 1943 the regiment was practically disbanded, leaving cadres only. On the 23rd it was re-formed on paper, to a reduced strength and with undetermined tasks, though theoretically to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Allied forces landing in Sicily.

`ADRA’ Battalion

The Battaglione Arditi Distruttori della Regia Aeronautica (ADRA), Air Force Assault Engineer Bn, had officially been formed as part of the 1st Air Force Assault Regt on 10 December 1942, but its composition was only defined on 25 January 1943. It was to have an HQ and three companies, each with three platoons, each having 2 officers, 3 NCOs and 24 rank-and-file. These formed squads each with an NCO and 8 rankers.

Their objectives were broadly defined as enemy airfield facilities, fuel and ammunition depots. The approach to the targets might be by either parachute, land or sea. Courses had begun at Tarquinia in September 1942, but the belated recruitment of volunteers, the time needed to train them, and delays in the delivery of weapons and equipment, meant that the first 60 Arditi were not available until April 1943, when the bulk of the 1st Air Force Assault Regt was already in Tunisia. As a consequence, on 10 April 1943 the `ADRA’ Bn was detached and made independent.

Its baptism of fire came in June 1943, when it took part in a mass sabotage operation against Allied airfields in North Africa. Ten `ADRA’ patrols, along with parties from the Army’s X Arditi, were flown from bases in Italy, France and Greece, only to land in most cases far from their targets. As a consequence of faulty intelligence many of these had not been studied properly, or were badly chosen (some were no longer even in use). Most of the patrols were taken prisoner hours, or at best days, after landing, and without reaching their targets. The exception was one patrol dropped in Cyrenaica which, chased by British forces and down to just two men, managed on the night of 17/18 June to penetrate Benina airfield and destroy or damage (amongst others) two USAAF B-24 Liberator bombers and two RAF Wellington bombers. The two Arditi eventually surrendered.