The Thirty Years’ War in Italy

Relief of Genoa by the Marquis of Santa Cruz by Antonio de Pereda. Museo del Prado.
map of Italy in 1631

At the dawn of the seventeenth century, Spain’s position in Italy appeared impregnable, but appearances can be deceiving. The Italian princes used their small armies for short campaigns, such as Pope Clement VIII-who sent an expeditionary force against the Muslims in Hungary in 1595 and in 1601-2-or the Duchy of Modena, which waged war against the smaller Republic of Lucca in 1613.

Venice was the only independently powerful state in Italy. The intrinsic desire to remain independent of all influences often placed it at odds with Spain and the papacy. Venice’s senate compelled the papacy to seek senatorial approval for papal edicts issued in the republic. If the Senate disagreed with papal policy, it rejected decrees. This religious autonomy further exacerbated the rift between Rome and the republic.

In 1605 the disagreements between Venice and Rome finally reached a critical stage. Spain pledged Rome all possible military support, but failed to back its pledge with tangible forces. They feared possible French intervention, and thus a stalemate ensued. The diplomatic situation in Italy was complex, and thus in 1613 a confused and peculiar war was fought. Venice had difficulties with Dalmatian pirates, protected by the Austrian Habsburgs. A Venetian fleet attacked the pirates in their ports, and soon a maritime war expanded to the Italian mainland where Venetian troops attacked an Austrian army in Friuli. They fought on the same battlefields were, exactly three centuries later, Italians and Austrians would clash during World War I, on Carso and around the city of Gorizia. The Habsburg garrison was commanded by count Albrecht von Wallenstein, future general of Habsburg forces in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War.

The war at sea was known as the Uscock War, after the name of the Dalmatian pirates. The war against Austria was called the War of Gradisca, after the city attacked by Venetian forces. In the course of these wars Spain mobilized its forces in Milan to assist their Austrian Habsburg cousins. At the moment an expanded Habsburg-Venetian war appeared imminent, Duke Charles Emmanuel I of Savoy demanded the Duchy of Mantua for his house or, at least, the Marquisat of Monferrat. Spanish opposition to Savoyard expansion in April 1613 generated a war between the Italian duchy and Spain. Although the weight of forces favored Spain, the Spanish army from Milan was defeated and the duke resisted further Spanish threats. Surviving for the moment, Charles Emmanuel actively pursued a Venetian alliance. He sent an ambassador to Venice. Although the Senate welcomed the opportunity, it decided that this Spanish distraction served them better than an active war between Venice and Spain. They decided not to declare war against Spain but covertly cooperate with Savoy without an official alliance. Venice subsidized the Savoyard army; Charles Emmanuel sent troops to the Venetian army and with his war occupied Spanish resources in Italy.

The Neapolitan-that is to say Spanish-fleet appeared in the southern Adriatic, but the Venetian fleet was more than adequate to meet the challenge. The war stalemated, and soon the French became active in the Alps. The threat of French intervention compelled Philip III, king of Spain, to end the war before his territories in Italy were fully threatened by a French-Savoyard-Venetian alliance. In 1617, Madrid, Vienna, Turin, and Venice came to terms. Despite the conclusion of this Italian war, it was soon eclipsed by the greater European conflict looming on the horizon, the Thirty Years’ War.

Causes

The European conflict known as the Thirty Years’ War originated in 1618 as a result of an internal conflict between the king of Bohemia, Ferdinand II-Holy Roman Emperor and head of the Austrian Habsburgs-and the Protestant lords in Bohemia. They threw Ferdinand’s envoy and his assistants out of the castle window in Prague-the Defenestration of Prague-and then requested military support from the Evangelical Union in the Holy Roman Empire. Bohemia, a kingdom of the Austrian Habsburg realm, was one of the seven electoral territories in the Holy Roman Empire. The defiant Bohemian lords looked to the German Protestant princes in their rebellion against Ferdinand II, and offered Frederick, elector of the Palatinate, the crown of Bohemia.

The Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation was elected by prince electors. If the House of Habsburg lost the crown of Bohemia, it lost the electoral capability as well as the possibility of maintaining the imperial crown in its hands. At the onset of this struggle for Bohemia, the House of Habsburg moved quickly to deal with this crisis, although it found itself overwhelmed with additional rebellions in Austria, too. All of this provided an opportunity for Frederick, as the Protestant Evangelical Union had no standing army and no diplomatic support abroad. Venice gave diplomatic support, because an enemy of Austria was a friend of the republic. Sweden and Denmark did the same, but Venice was richer and closer to Austria and Bohemia than Denmark and Sweden, therefore its support was of major importance to Frederick.

The problem remained building an army. It is here that Charles Emmanuel of Savoy became a central player. In 1617 he raised in Germany and paid in advance for an army of five thousand professional soldiers under General Ernst von Mansfeld. Initially, he wanted to employ it against Spain in northern Italy. With the war in Italy interrupted and the Evangelical Union needing an army, he left his forces in Germany. The Union’s ambassadors agreed that in exchange for his army, they support his interest in the imperial crown. As a prince of the empire they could vote for him. Charles Emmanuel accepted the proposition and his army went to Prague. Frederick had now diplomatic support and an army. He refused any possible accommodation with the Habsburgs, and the Thirty Years’ War began. The Evangelical Union did not keep its word; nonetheless, both Savoy and Venice had successfully diverted the Habsburg menace from Italy.

The emperor, Ferdinand II, was strongly funded by the Catholic world. His Spanish cousin, Philip III, gave him 1 million florins una tantum, but this was a trifle compared to the funds raised in Italy. Pope Paul V pledged 20,000 florins per month for the duration of the conflict. Then he permitted the emperor to levy a war tax in Italy, which brought in 250,000 scudi per year. The twelve congregations of the Catholic Church sent a 100,000-scudi gift, and this meant that, after 1623, the pope gave the emperor more money than Spain did. Moreover, the duke of Tuscany gave financial support and maintained a cavalry regiment in Germany throughout the war.

Thousands of Italians took part in the war, many of whom served as highranking officers in the imperial army. Famed soldiers such as Collalto, Galasso, Piccolomini, and Raimondo Montecuccoli fought under imperial and Spanish colors. Italian troops formed a significant part of the army that defeated Frederick and the Evangelical army at White Mountain in 1618; 14,000 were later led by the duke of Feria from Italy to Bavaria, as well as 16,000 led by the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand (later Ferdinand III), who fought and won at Nördlingen in 1634. The greater part of Habsburg forces and finances were drawn from Italy.

The Spanish Road and the Struggle for Its Control: 1619-1640

Soon after the war began, Spain moved its troops north along the Spanish Road. It was impossible to prevent their movement in Italy, but it was possible to cut the Spanish Road in Switzerland, in the Valtelline. The Grisons were the masters of that Catholic and Italian-speaking valley, and they were Protestant. The advent of the Thirty Years’ War in Bohemia therefore affected Switzerland, too. A long and complicated war, the First Valtelline War began in 1620, when the local Catholics massacred all the Protestants living in the valley and, supported by the Spaniards, destroyed Protestant Swiss reinforcements coming from the north. The French, directed by Cardinal Richelieu, tried to cut the Spanish Road but repeatedly failed. Richelieu’s objective was to weaken the Habsburgs in Italy and Germany by supporting the local autonomies against Spain and Austria. He anticipated that this would compel Madrid and Vienna to use their military resources and their capital in Switzerland and Italy, to keep the Spanish Road opened, reducing their forces in Germany.

This policy of distracting the Habsburgs from their dynastic ambitions was drafted by King Henry IV and, after his assassination, it was continued and successfully exploited by his son’s minister Cardinal de Richelieu. From the early days of seventeenth century, the primary objective of French foreign policy was to supplant Habsburg power in Italy and Germany; failing that, to keep the Habsburgs weak in both regions. When in 1623 the major French effort to cut the Spanish Road in the Valtelline failed, France approached Savoy for an alliance. Richelieu’s intention was to conquer Genoa in order to cut the Spanish Road at its landing point in Liguria. In 1625, Charles Emmanuel of Savoy led a victorious campaign against Genoa, but as he anticipated consolidating his hold on the republic, French disorganization and Spanish intervention stopped him. Piedmontese troops were forced to leave Liguria and Spanish troops invaded Piedmont, thereby securing the the Spanish Road. In 1626 the Spanish army surrounded the key Piedmontese city of Verrua. The siege was long, terribly hard, and expensive. The Spaniards failed to take the city and decided to negotiate an end to the war. In any case, France failed again to cut the Spanish Road, and soon Spanish troops continued their march to Germany to support Catholic and Habsburg causes. The Protestants were defeated in Bohemia and in western and central Germany. Imperial troops defeated a Danish army under Christian IV and reached the borders of Jutland when the death of the duke of Mantua altered the course of the conflict.

Mantua was small, rich, and possessed major strategic importance in northern Italy. If the Spanish Road was cut, imperial troops could move from Germany to Italy only along a second, less protected, and less comfortable route. Venice owned the land in northern Italy from Switzerland to Adriatic coast, between Austrian and Spanish territories. Imperial troops could pass through the mountains separating the Trentino from Lombardy, then reach Lake Garda and sail down the Mincio river. Although the route passed through Venetian territory, the Venetians would allow them to sail down the river under condition of not landing on Venetian territory. Mantua was the terminal at the end of the journey. The master of the city controlled the only other imperial route through Italy.

In 1628, when duke Vincenzo Gonzaga died, his closest heir was the duke of Gonzaga-Nevers, descended from a branch of the family established in France. When the Spaniards realized that a French noble was the legal heir of Mantua and master of their second most important strategic city, they immediately threw their support behind the second Gonzaga branch, that of the former dukes of Ferrara. Venice and Paris declared their armies prepared to back Charles of GonzagaNevers. Ferdinand II then ordered his troops to Italy. The return of the imperial armies from Germany to Italy was a long-standing nightmare of the Church. Pope Urban VIII concentrated an army on his northern border, the bank of the Po river in front of Mantua, to prevent the introduction of imperial troops any farther south.

Cardinal de Richelieu saw Mantua as a new opportunity. A French-born duke in Mantua could cut the Habsburg’s strategic nerve. Mantua was far from the French frontier, and Richelieu’s army needed a secure passage through the Alps and a supply base in northern Italy. Lombardy was Spanish, but Mantua owned Monferrat, which was in Piedmont. If France could obtain free passage across the Alps with permission of Savoy, it could establish a horizontal strategic line running from the Alps through Casale-the capital of Monferrat-to Mantua, cutting both the Spanish Road, very close to Casale, and the Mantua route. The objective was so vital to French grand strategy that Richelieu personally led the French army into the Piedmont.

Charles Emmanuel I of Savoy was allied to Spain at this time, having been betrayed by the Evangelical Union and courted by Madrid. Richelieu tried to bargain, but the duke was clever. He negotiated with the cardinal while assembling his army. At the same time the new duke of Mantua raised an army; and both Venetian and imperial troops marched to Mantua. Gradually, more than 100,000 men from Savoy, Venice, Spain, the Papal States, Mantua, France, Naples, and the empire concentrated on the Padana Plain. It was the biggest concentration of troops ever seen during the Thirty Years’ War; and it occurred in Italy instead of in Germany.

In 1629, after the Danish phase of the Thirty Years’ War and prior to Swedish intervention, the turning point was reached in Italy. As C. V. Wedgwood remarked: “Insignificant in itself, the Mantuan crisis was the turning point of the Thirty Years’ War, for it precipitated the final division of the Catholic Church against itself, alienated the pope from the Habsburg dynasty, and made morally possible the calling of Protestant allies by Catholic powers to redress the balance.” Habsburg generals Ambrogio Spinola and Rambaldo di Collalto-both Italians- coordinated their efforts and, on July 18, 1630, Mantua fell and was pillaged by the imperials. Richelieu had captured Pinerolo, at the foot of the Piedmontese Alps, by this time, and the French and Mantuan garrison of Casale successfully kept the Spanish at bay. When this short and bloody war ended in 1630, the Treaty of Regensburg recognized the French presence in Italy and their possession of a passage across the Alps. The Spanish Road could now be cut from Casale; and the city-fortress could be supported by the French garrison at Pinerolo; and Pinerolo could be supplied from France thanks to the passage across the Alps. Richelieu had achieved a remarkable strategic success.

All was quiet on the Italian front for the following five years. Germany became the major operational theater once more; and Spain focused its attention and troops there. Long columns of soldiers under Spanish colors marched along the Spanish Road from Italy to Germany to fight and die on Dutch and German battlefields. The Spanish raised an enormous amount of money in Italy.

Their troops sailed from Italy to South America after 1624, when the Dutch attacked Brazil. Spain absorbed Portugal and its colonies until the 1640s, and found them susceptible to Dutch raids after 1621, when the twelve-year truce ended. The first Italian troops reached Saõ Joaõ da Bahia in 1625 and fought successfully against the Dutch. In 1635 the Neapolitan nobleman Giovan Vincenzo Sanfelice was appointed supreme commander of the Spanish troops in Brazil, and in 1638 he defeated Dutch troops attacking Bahia under John Maurice of Nassau.

The entire conflict in Europe changed in 1635 when France entered the war, backing the Protestants. Richelieu opened the Italian front with an alliance between France, Savoy, Mantua and Parma against Spain. Then a French army reentered the Valtelline to cut the Spanish Road. Spanish troops from Milan ejected the French; and Richelieu moved his army to Piedmont, while the duke of Modena joined Spain. After two years, a new peace was signed over the Valtelline, but the war continued in Piedmont until 1640. Piedmont, however, was racked by civil war between the duchess-sister of Louis XIII of France and mother of the young Duke Charles Emmanuel II-and princes Maurice and Thomas of Savoy who, as the brothers of the late Duke Victor Amadeus I, wanted the regency until their nephew could receive the crown.

France supported Duchess Christine and Spain backed the princes. After a three-year war, France and the duchess prevailed. The French retained their positions in Piedmont and menaced the Spanish Road once again. Richelieu followed up this change of fortune with another indirect attempt to weaken Spanish control of Italy. A local war exploded in central Italy in 1640. The so-called Castro War, after the name of a little fief some sixty miles north of Rome, involved a coalition composed of Venice, Parma, Modena and Tuscany in a conflict against the pope. The clash had no impact on the war in Germany, but it diverted men and resources and forced Spain to retain troops in Italy. All the Italian states involved recalled their best men serving abroad. Among them was Raimondo Montecuccoli, appointed commander of the Modenese troops who conducted an impressive campaign against papal troops around Bologna.

This bloody war, with casualties on both sides exceeding 14,000 men in twenty-three months, ended in 1644, with no significant changes to the political situation in Italy.

Cardinal Mazarin, successor to Richelieu, decided to act directly against Spain. In 1646 a 10,000-man French expeditionary force landed in the Presidii to cut the maritime portion of the Spanish Road. Operations went on slowly, but in 1647, Naples, the financial and military center of Spanish power in Italy revolted against the Spanish viceroy. The root cause of the revolt was the excessive taxation by the Spanish to sustain their war in the Netherlands and Germany. When in July 1647 a new tax was levied on fruits and vegetables, the people revolted. No less than 115,000 people took arms against the viceroy, who escaped to Naples’ main castle. The Spanish garrison was unable to stop the riots, and in October the revolution expanded throughout southern Italy. Madrid dispatched all available galleys and troops to Naples. No less than 40 galleys and vessels and more than 3,000 cannons, including those in the fortresses, were employed. The expedition failed; and Naples fell to the rebellion. The Royal Neapolitan Republic-as the revolutionary government named itself-requested assistance from France. A French fleet arrived before the city on December 24, 1647, and fought a naval battle against the Spanish while the French duke of Guiche was proclaimed chief of the Royal Neapolitan Republic.

Spain increased troops and ships in the area. At the same time the Spanish promised money and honors to all who would help them, as well as a general pardon to the city and its inhabitants. In spring 1648 the money succeeded where the weapons had failed; and the duke of Guiche was captured by Spanish forces.

The Peace of Westphalia ended the war in Europe, but the Thirty Years’ War left unresolved problems and new animosities. France attained its strategic goals. Germany and Italy remained divided into small weak states. According to the treaty, France could intervene in German affairs to defend Protestant rights. German princes could seek French protection when in conflict with the emperor. France used this power for diplomatic and military purposes into the eighteenth century.

The situation in Italy differed because the Treaties of Westphalia did not address the situation in the peninsula. France, however, retained control of the Alpine passes and the fortress of Pinerolo. This gave them a direct control over the Piedmont and the effective means to cut the Spanish Road and the Spanish logistical system.

Italy Triumphant

Italian troops landing in Trieste, 3 November 1918

The Battle of Vittorio Veneto meant something to Italians that cannot be found in a summary of operations. It brought the balm of victory and the promise of peace. Piero Pieri, the war veteran and historian, would hail it as a masterly breakthrough, ‘our purest glory’. The Italians had defeated an Austrian army in a straight fight – something that eluded them during the Risorgimento. More than this: ‘After fifteen centuries, an Italian army drove back and destroyed a larger and completely foreign army.’ Along with the empire, victory had destroyed the myth that Italians were incapable of waging war. A joke going around at the time caught the infantry’s rueful pride: ‘Just when we learned how to fight – the war is over!’

Boroević’s postwar life was to be sad and brief. Denied permission to live in Yugoslavia, he survived in destitution in southern Austria, ‘longing for death’ as he told a friend. According to legend, he lived on gifts of food from veterans. The Yugoslavs refused to pay his pension, supposedly because he had ordered his retreating army to occupy Ljubljana in November 1918. He died in May 1920.

When I compare my fate with that of my good German comrades [he wrote in the last weeks of his life] I cannot help but be envious. They were all able to save their fatherland from catastrophe. I could not. The Yugoslavs, whose kingdom would not have emerged if I had not fought the battles on the Isonzo, cannot forgive my role in prolonging the war … I am likewise a stranger to Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Thus, for now, I have no country and am living for the sixth year out of my military chest.

Diaz’s Victory Bulletin, issued on 4 November, exaggerated the strength of enemy forces and minimised the Allied contribution. It became a sort of national scripture, displayed in barracks as a bronze relief cast from the metal of Austrian guns and fixed to the walls of schools for pupils to learn. When people read its artful boast that ‘the remains of what was once one of the most powerful armies in the world’ were in retreat, they could not know that ‘once’ meant a long time ago. (On 9 November, Orlando suppressed a draft communiqué by Diaz that described the ‘disastrous condition’ of the Austrian army in its last days.) This false account of the last battle was not contested by the military, whom it flattered, or the journalists, who were still censored and self-censoring. Within a few years it merged seamlessly with Fascist glorification of the war. Under Mussolini, historians who knew better wrote that Italy had defeated the Austrians ‘alone’.

The 24 hours of grace were used to put Italian boots on as much territory as possible around the northern Adriatic and in the Alto Adige. At 16:20 on 3 November, an Italian destroyer nosed into the bay of Trieste. An officer in Austrian uniform led the ship through the mines guarding the harbour towards the quay, packed with excited citizens. The officer was Lieutenant Guido Tedaldi, an Italian from one of the Adriatic islands. Someone asked if he would not rather change his uniform. No, he said, he had to redeem this one, by making it serve the fatherland. Redemption was the word of the day. Standing at the prow of the Audace was the tall, corpulent figure of General Petitti di Roreto, who would be Trieste’s first Italian governor. ‘From today’, he cried, ‘our dead are dead no longer!’ The crowd roared ‘Viva l’Italia! Welcome! At last!’ A band played the royal march of the House of Savoy. ‘In the name of His Majesty the King of Italy, I take possession of the city of Trieste!’ the general declared.

Trento was liberated on the same day, and the first patrols entered Udine and Gorizia, closely followed by refugees who had been counting the hours before they could go home. A lady from Gorizia described the scene:

… such ruins were unimaginable … Munitions boxes, heaps of stones, rags, furniture, stoves … The windows are all barricaded with sandbags or bricks and you can still see the machine guns poking out of the garret windows. Barbed wire, bits of furniture, piles of wreckage, stones, block the street to the city centre. The square in front of the cathedral looks like a rubbish tip. The shops have all been gutted, everything tossed on the ground in complete confusion; a heavy-calibre shell has destroyed our house. The only movement, the only sign of life, is the rats. They rush about the streets by the dozen, outside the houses, between your legs.

Even making all haste, by 15:00 on 4 November the army was far short of the Brenner Pass. On the Adriatic, when the armistice came into force, the line of control ran short of Monfalcone, let alone Trieste. The problem was not resistance – Austrian authority melted at the touch, like snowflakes; it was mechanical. Diaz had no means to get his men far enough forward in the short time available. As long as the Italians were merely advancing, however, rather than fighting, the armistice did not oblige them to stop. Valentino Coda, a volunteer from Genoa who became the first Fascist deputy in parliament, spoke to joyful crowds in Trento: ‘The dream has come true, our hundred-year effort has been crowned, and exultant Italy gathers you to her breast.’ Pressing beyond Trento, the first troops in the Alto Adige passed Italian prisoners of war on the long road home, looking like ghosts, smiling and weeping. A unit of the 75th Alpino Division reached the Brenner Pass on 7 November. Two days later, the last Austrian troops made their way north across the pass. On the 10th, an Italian battery climbed to the summit and ran the national flag up an improvised flagpole. The Italians stood on their ‘natural border’ at last.

Torpedo boats overloaded with infantry were sent from Venice to the ports of Pola, Zara and Sebenico. Facing no resistance, a single platoon could ‘occupy’ a town. Warships docked at the larger Dalmatian islands and the Albanian port of Valona. Troops even landed at Cattaro (Kotor), down in Montenegro. South of Istria, the Italians were ‘received with open hostility’ except in Zara, the only city with an Italian majority. Nonetheless, they behaved like masters with inalienable rights of conquest. An admiral claimed the title ‘Governor of Dalmatia’. An American envoy warned that Italy’s bullying attitude threatened ‘to produce an open collision with the Yugoslavs … the population is in no way hostile to a joint landing of the Entente forces but only to the Italians being allowed to act alone’. Yugoslav leaders begged the Allies to land forces of their own in Dalmatia. A few units were sent, including an American regiment. As they came under Diaz’s command, these units could hardly address the problem. Indeed, Italian commanders learned to send American platoons ahead, in order to defuse anti-Italian feeling. The Americans were then withdrawn overnight and replaced with Italians.

Fatefully, in mid-November, Orlando authorised the occupation of Fiume, a port between Trieste and Zara that had been developed as a Hungarian alternative to Austrian Trieste, 70 kilometres away. With good connections to central Europe, the port had grown rapidly. By the end of the nineteenth century, imperial buildings lined the harbour-front. Italian immigration was encouraged, to dilute the Croat pop ulation; by 1910, two-thirds of the old town (with 25,000 inhabitants) was Italian. The wider urban area remained over whelmingly Croat. Before the war, Fiume had not figured prominently on the irredentists’ wish-list; the Treaty of London granted it to the South Slavs, as a guarantee that they would not be deprived of a modern port.

By an ancient prerogative – preserved through centuries of Habsburg rule, like many other constitutional flora and fauna – Fiume was a ‘corpus separatum’, a distinct entity within the empire. On this basis, local Italian leaders claimed the town’s right to self-determination in mid-October. When the Hungarian authorities abandoned Fiume at the end of the month, local irredentists staged a plebiscite on the city’s future and proclaimed its annexation to Italy. This was the situation when a Sardinian brigade disembarked on 17 November, shoring up the self-proclaimed authorities and ensuring that the issue of Fiume would envenom the Paris conference in 1919.

The government approved a plan drawn up by Badoglio to break Slovene and Croat resistance in the occupied territories, and subvert the fragile Yugoslav state with black propaganda and paid agents. Orlando and Sonnino hoped to weaken the Yugoslav authorities-in-waiting while justifying Italy’s occupation. Inland, the Italians ignored the demarcation line agreed in the armistice. The 83rd Company of Engineers marched on and on, beyond the Carso, stopping at a little village where they erected an obelisk with a Latin inscription, expressing the White Man’s Burden of Italian greatness: ‘Consul Aulus Postumius reached this point 2,000 years ago. Today Italy returns with her civilisation.’ Other units pushed further eastwards still, and were only deterred from occupying the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, when Serbian army units threatened to attack.

The Americans and French were troubled. To clip Italian pretensions, France made Fiume the logistics base of the Allied Armies of the Orient. Indignant at this bid to loosen their grip on Fiume, the Italians refused to comply. The quarrel spiralled up to the highest level, and the Allies sent a quartet of admirals to investigate. Foch resolved the matter shortly before Christmas: the Yugoslavs should control Ljubljana and the Italians, Fiume. The Yugoslav state had already been proclaimed, thanks in part to Italy’s threatening posture in the Adriatic, driving the Slovenes and Croats into the arms of Serbia, accelerating the very process of state-formation that Sonnino wanted to abort. Sonnino dedicated himself to preventing the new state’s recognition by the Allies while suffocating it with an economic blockade. The United States recognised Yugoslavia nonetheless in February 1919, while Britain and France delayed doing so merely ‘to please the Italians’, as Clemenceau put it. By then Italy’s leaders had squandered their credit with the other Allies, mismanaging their role at the Paris conference so spectacularly that Cadorna’s campaigns look almost judicious by comparison.

CANT Z.1007

[Painting by Arkadiusz Wróbel]

Along with the Savoia-Marchetti S.M.79, the CANT Z.1007 Alcione series of bombers served as the backbone of the Regia Aeronautica’s conventional and torpedo strike forces in World War II. Under the aegis of the firm of CANT, Ingeniere Filippo Zappata began design studies of the CANT Z.1007 and Z.1011 in 1935: both were powered by 625kW Isotta-Fraschmi Asso XI RC.15 engines, for which the former had three and the latter two. The relatively low power ratings of this engine forced the Regia Aeronautica to order the trimotor CANT Z.1007 for production, the first prototype flying in March 1937. The aircraft was constructed entirely of wood, save for the usual metal ancillaries and nacelle cladding. The first examples had two-bladed wooden propellers, but all later versions adopted the three-bladed metal Alfa Romeo types. In 1938, as a means to better load and performance, the CANT Z.1007bis entered production, having three 745kW Piaggio B.XIbis RC.40 radial engines as standard. The CANT Z.1007bis was the major production model, and featured revised armament, engine cowlings and dimensions. A single fin and rudder was used on the Z. 1007 Serie I-III, with a twin fin-rudder format being adopted on the Z.1007 Serie IV-IX subtypes.

Battle of Britain

The Z.1007 first saw action during the Battle of Britain in September 1940. Regia Aereonautica sent five Z.1007Bis to Belgium as part of the Corpo Aereo Italiano, with almost 200 other bombers and fighters. They were considered the best of all the Italian bombers, but since there were so few, they were used mainly for strategic reconnaissance. After several months of operations and near the end of Italian operations over Britain, one Z.1007 was lost to an accident after having survived many reconnaissance missions over Britain.

Greco-Italian War

The Z.1007 also participated in the Italian invasion of Greece in October of 1940. The Z.1007 participated in the bombing campaign over Malta and in the campaigns in North Africa and on the Eastern Front. Although fast, these bombers were vulnerable when hit and prone to catch fire.

The service saw 47 Wing equipped with some of the first bombers at Ghedi. Only four were in service at 10 June 1940. The production was slow with 15 machines made every month at best. The first 34 machines, Cant Z.1007Asso were used just as trainers and later as weather recognisers. In 1943 there were still 16 available. A transformation with Delta engines was made to improve economical congestion but applied to only one machine. With the time the aircraft was used with many Wings like 9th and substituted the SM.79 and BR.20 as possible with so few available.

Cant Z.1007 Asso substituted SM.81s in 16 Wing, 47 Wing had Z.1007Bis but the transformation gave the possibility to reach only in August the first operational readiness, when around 30 machines were sent in Sicily to attack Malta. Over Greece operated 16°, 12°, 35°, and 47° Wings, with some losses, among them one made by a PZL.24 manned by Ltn. Mitraxialexis. 172° squadriglia was sent on Belgium to fight UK. It had only five machines, while BR.20s were around 80 on two wings.

Used as high altitude reconnaissance machines, they had no losses, except one lost just at the end of the campaign. 175 reconnaissance squadron, and later 176th were used in Africa. The destroyer HMS Juno was destroyed by an explosion caused by a Z.1007 bombing, in 1941. 35 Wing was sent over Africa with the bombing role. The bad weather conditions made difficult to hold in service this wooden aircraft, but still the machine was used until 1943.

In 1942 Cant Z.1007s were used by four groups and two wings during Mediterranean battles, both in anti-ship role and above all, against Malta, often escorted by Italian and German fighters

In November 1942 there were eight groups equipped with Z.1007s but only 75 machines, with just 39 efficient out of 150 bomber of all types.

Again, the Allies

Fighting against Allied invasion had losses, even flying only at night, especially by Bristol Beaufighters, and the same could be said over Malta.

In June 1943 was made a Raggruppamento with almost all the Z.1007s at Perugia, with only 30 machines, dropped to 19 with 13 serviceable in September. At the Armistice there were around 72 machines, around 40 of them escaped to South Italy. They were used as fast transports, and even was proposed by ICAF to use them as bombers in the Pacific theatre.

Post WWII problems and performances

The worst day for Z.1007s was 14 May 1944, when 88° Gruppo sent 12 Z.1007s with supplies to Tito’s forces. Five were shot down and two damaged by German fighters in a dramatic air battle, 26 Italian aviators were killed. From that day the employ was authorized only at night until the end of the German fighter force.

Z.1007ter was the best version, It should have been proposed already with Alfa 135 engines, 1,400 hp. Dropped this machines because the Cant Z.1018 and the unreliability of that engine, there was another -ter proposal with P.XI engines, 1,150 hp, and the production was started in 1942, with a total of around 150 machines. The test pilots were better impressed by this machine rather than Z.1018, faster but with less power (because the layout with only two P.XII engines), while the range was improved from 2,000 to 2,250 km with 2,460 kg fuel and 900 kg bombs. So, While Z.1018 had 2,700 hp, already Z.1007Bis had 3,000 (2,610 at take off) and Z.1007ter 3,450. Despite this, the Z.1018 was so clean with only two engines, that was capable with the same weight to obtain 70 and 34 km/h more.

Performances were improved with a max speed of 490 km/h at 6,150 m instead of 456 at 4,600 m. Climbing to 3,000 m in 6 min 28 sec, and 5,000 m in 10 min 44 sec (Z.1007 bis in 12 min 42 sec, Z.1007 Asso in 14 min 34 sec). Armament and armour were also improved. Dorsal turret was a Breda model, flank weapons were replaced with 12,7 mm. Ceiling finally raised to 9,000 m instead of 8,400 m.

Z.1007s were used mainly as night bombers and reconnaissance, and they were in service only during the war, so they had much less press than SM.79s and BR.20s. They were used also as long range reconnaissance, with excellent results. Some, at least 20 were equipped with an auxiliary tank that gave 1,000 km extra endurance. Some were adapted for Bengala launches when day missions were too dangerous. One of the best set for photo missions had six robot machines in a ventral gondola plus another in the fuselage. The long range and the ceiling helped these aircraft to obtain good results until the Spitfires appeared. In every case, they were also the first victims of P-40 Tomahawks (over Alexandria).

Another development was the Z.1015, it was proposed as record version of the Z.1007 already in 1938 but it was not considered until 1942, when substituted Alfa 135 with Piaggio P.XII engines. It had 563 km/h of speed, thanks to a total of over 4,000 hp installed. It was tested successfully as torpedo aircraft, but it was not used operationally and not passed in production.

The Z.1007ter, which had more powerful engines, entered service in 1942. By the time of the Allied invasion of Sicily, few were still flying. The remainder went on to fight with the Italian Social Republic, Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force and the Luftwaffe.

ENLIGHTENED ITALY

Naples and Sicily belonged to the Spanish Habsburgs until 1700, when the last member of that branch of the family died without choosing between French and Austrian claimants to his throne until the last moment, when he opted for Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV. During the consequent War of the Spanish Succession, armies of both the Austrian emperor and the French prince occupied Sicily. At its end the Treaties of Utrecht (1713–14) confirmed the Bourbon contender as Philip V of Spain, but France’s military defeats by the Duke of Marlborough forced it to cede territory in North America to the British and to abandon those interests in Italy it might have inherited from the Spanish crown.

After Utrecht Austria hoped to return to Sicily, but the British, illogically and incomprehensibly, persuaded its ally that the island should go to another friend in the recent war, Victor Amadeus, the ambitious ruler of Piedmont and Savoy, who now assumed the title King of Sicily. This was an unwise arrangement because no part of Italy is so unlike Sicily as Piedmont. Victor Amadeus sailed to Palermo in a British ship, the first monarch to visit the island since 1535 and the last to do so till the Bourbon Ferdinand IV fled there to escape the armies of revolutionary France. Coming from Piedmont, where the nobility had a tradition of military and state service, the new king could not understand why Sicilian aristocrats were so unwilling to be soldiers or administrators. He called their assembly in Palermo an ‘ice-cream parliament’ because eating ice-cream seemed to be its members’ most conspicuous activity. The nobles were equally contemptuous of this rustic-looking northerner and regretted the disappearance of Spain’s elegant and elaborate viceregal court. After attempting a few reforms, Victor Amadeus soon tired of trying to rule an ungrateful island from Turin and offered it to Austria provided he was compensated by somewhere else where he could be called a king; eventually he managed to get himself made King of Sardinia. Meanwhile a large Spanish force invaded Sicily, but its navy was destroyed by a British fleet while its army was defeated by Austrian troops coming across the Straits of Messina. The Treaty of The Hague in 1720 confirmed Sicily as a possession of the Austrians, who soon made themselves unpopular on the island by trying to reform institutions which the islanders did not wish to see reformed. In 1734 another Spanish attempt to seize Sicily succeeded, and the Bourbons thereafter ruled it until they were defeated by Garibaldi in 1860.

Each change of Sicilian ruler between 1700 and 1734 was a consequence of a wider European conflict, of the contest between Habsburg emperors (Spanish and Austrian) and French monarchs (first Valois, then – in Spain as well as France – Bourbon) that had been dragging on for 200 years. In the process the chief antagonists altered Italian boundaries and dynasties, usually at treaties negotiated in the Netherlands, with no regard for the wishes or interests of the inhabitants. Sicilians could watch Spanish, Austrian or Piedmontese armies tramping over their island just as they could spy the British navy supporting one force or another off their coasts, yet they had no say in what might happen when the fighting was over.

The rest of Italy was also affected by mysterious decisions taken in the north. Like the Medici in Tuscany, the Farnese in Parma died out in the 1730s through the failure of its last males to procreate. The succession correctly went to the last duke’s acquisitive niece, Elizabeth Farnese, although, as she was living in Madrid as Queen of Spain, the duchy was assigned to her son, Don Carlos, whom the European states had simultaneously selected to be the next Grand Duke of Tuscany. Rushing to Florence with an army ready to take over, the young Spanish prince displayed his life-long obsession with hunting by shooting arrows at the birds woven into the tapestries in the Pitti Palace. But Gian Gastone de’ Medici failed to die as soon as everyone expected, and, by the time he did expire, the War of the Polish Succession (1733–5) had upset all plans and altered Don Carlos’s ambitions. Now, at a moment of Austrian military weakness, Elizabeth Farnese revived Spanish claims to the crowns of Naples and Sicily and told her son to overrun those kingdoms, which he soon did. As Charles VII, he ruled in Naples from 1734 to 1759, when he succeeded his half-brother as Charles III of Spain, the nation he ruled until his death in 1788.

After Charles had taken Naples from Austria, the vanquished power annexed Parma but was soon forced to return it to a Bourbon-Farnese ruler, Philip, a younger brother of the new Neapolitan king. A condition of European acceptance of Charles in Naples was the separation of the southern crowns from Spain, a proviso that later allowed his younger son Ferdinand to create his own dynasty in Naples. A similar condition was attached to the succession in Tuscany that finally settled on Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine, who had to be recompensed for the loss of his own duchy, given to ex-King Stanislaw of Poland, the loser in the War of the Polish Succession and the father-in-law of the French monarch Louis XV. Shortly before his death in 1737, the last Medici insisted that Tuscany must never form part of the Habsburg Empire whose heiress, Maria Theresa, was the wife of Francis Stephen. After yet another war over another succession (this time the Austrian), the long game of musical thrones was finally stopped in 1748 at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The peninsula remained dominated by foreign dynasties – the Bourbons in Parma and the south, the Habsburgs in Milan (since the War of the Spanish Succession) as well as Tuscany – but it had now achieved a certain equilibrium of power. A half-century of war was giving way to a half-century of peace.

Aix-la-Chapelle was signed at a time when the ideas of the French philosophes and other writers of the Enlightenment were just beginning to percolate through the minds of Italian rulers and some of their subjects. People were coming to expect more from their monarch, not that he should share power with them but that he should act wisely, as a philosopher-king, educating his subjects, reining in the Church and the nobility, taking a leading part in promoting agriculture and trade. Thus arrived the era of ‘enlightened despotism’, a term applied to an age during which, at least in retrospect, the sovereigns of Europe are made to appear as if they had been competing hard to personify the notion: digging canals and draining marshes, constructing roads and abolishing tolls, reading Voltaire and Montesquieu before expelling the Jesuits and dissolving the monasteries – and all the time building an enlightened paradise with schools, hospitals, universities and academies.

The prince most closely resembling the stereotype in Italy was the second son of Maria Theresa, Peter Leopold, the Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1765 to 1790. Intelligent and energetic, he was driven by the desire for reform in both economic and humanitarian affairs. He attacked monopolies and encouraged free trade, built roads and bridges, made taxes both lower and fairer, and reduced the public debt; he also made a valiant attempt to drain the Maremma’s marshes. In consultation with the Milanese writer Cesare Beccaria he drew up a penal code that made Tuscany the first state in Europe to abolish the death penalty and burn the gallows – a measure so audacious and encouraging to the cause of enlightenment that a Spanish reformer implored his own progressive sovereign to turn his eyes to Tuscany, to ‘reflect upon the mildness of the penalties’, upon ‘the small number of crimes’ committed there, and to ‘read over and over again the penal code’ of its prince. Among his other merits, Peter Leopold was conscientious and loyal to a state that had had no connection to either of his parents’ families before 1734. Although from 1770 he was heir to the imperial throne in Vienna, the grand duke kept his father’s promise to defend the rights and maintain the autonomy of his duchy. In 1790 he became the penultimate Holy Roman emperor after the death of his brother, Joseph II, who was the greatest and most innovative of all enlightened monarchs, an emancipator of serfs as well as Jews, although unlike Catherine of Russia and Frederick of Prussia he has not been known as ‘the Great’ – perhaps because at the end of his life he was defeated by the forces of Belgian conservatism. During his brief reign in Vienna, Leopold II (as Peter Leopold became) retained his reforming zeal, abolishing various punishments and ordering the police to be kind to prisoners; he even gave his subjects ‘something of the principle of habeas corpus’.

Enlightened despotism would not have lasted even without the French Revolution. The phrase is after all an oxymoron, though it seemed to make sense for half a century; ultimately, the ideas of the Enlightenment were bound to lead to demands for constitutional reform and the abolition of despots. Besides, however enlightened the rulers were, there was a limit to how despotic their behaviour could be, even without parliaments. Wherever reforms were attempted – in Florence, Milan, Naples or elsewhere – there were nobles and clerics always ready to dilute, delay and otherwise obstruct them.

The first half of the eighteenth century had been a great age for Italian scholarship, a time when the peninsula housed some of Europe’s finest philosophers and historians, men of the stature of Giambattista Vico, Lodovico Muratori and Pietro Giannone. Later in the century, their followers flocked to the enlightened courts, especially to Florence, the favourite rallying-point for reformers from Spain as well as Italy. They were eager to advise and cooperate with rulers on practical projects and simultaneously to establish a peninsular intelligentsia that could function across Italy’s many boundaries, creating in the process what they hoped would be ‘a republic of letters’. This was a flourishing era for cultural and scientific academies and also for journals, which could disseminate ideas and discoveries beyond the frontiers.

Contemporary intellectuals sometimes talked of a cultural Italy but not of a political patria: nationalism did not exist before the French Revolution. Most of them accepted what the despots gave in the way of reforms and did not ask for much more. Like the Piedmontese writer Vittorio Alfieri, they might write plays attacking tyranny but they did not criticize the enlightened despots. As Guicciardini had done in the sixteenth century, some accepted and even revered the political disunity and consequent diversity and cosmopolitanism of their country. When one intellectual suggested the possibility of a single Italy, another remarked that he did not want ‘love of country to affect our impartiality as good cosmopolites’.

After Florence and Austrian-ruled Milan, Naples was the best place for intellectuals to be, living under the sympathetic eyes of its new Bourbon monarchs and their talented ministers. Rome or Turin would not have tolerated the presence of Antonio Genovesi, who inspired many people with his advocacy of radical economic and humanitarian reforms. Yet in the tolerant atmosphere of Bourbon Naples he could enjoy a successful public career as a professor of metaphysics and a professor of ethics before becoming in 1754 the first professor of political economy in Europe.

Charles of Naples was an unusual enlightened despot. He promoted learning, so long as it did not affect himself or his children. He constructed a great opera house, although he disliked music and slept or chatted during performances. He was a keen builder, but mostly of palaces in places convenient for the hunting which he did every afternoon regardless of the weather. Yet however unread and unlearned he was, Charles was an intelligent and conscientious ruler – at least in the mornings – with the knack of picking able ministers to carry out sensible policies. Although he was not greatly interested in economics or legislation, his rule oversaw a doubling in revenue and a decrease in taxation; and he made Naples one of the great capitals of Europe.

As the king’s eldest son was an imbecile and his second was heir to the Spanish crown, the Neapolitan throne went to the third brother, Ferdinand, who was left alone at the age of eight when his parents went to Madrid. While a Council of Regents directed his realm, Ferdinand emerged as a boisterous, bonhomous, rough-edged youth who loved hunting as much as his father and hated reading, writing and even signing his own name. His first complaint about his wife, a Habsburg princess, was that she liked books. His rustic manners and earthy vocabulary may have been ill-suited to the palace of Caserta – ‘the Italian Versailles’ – but they made him popular; he was called the lazzarone king because he empathized with the city’s famous underclass known as lazzaroni, and like them he enjoyed eating maccheroni with his fingers. As in the time of his father, intelligent advisers carried out reforms that the monarch often cared little about. ‘If he remained ignorant,’ observed the aesthete and historian Harold Acton, ‘at least his subjects were becoming enlightened.’

Ferdinand presided over a huge capital city, containing perhaps half a million people, most of whom lived precariously in the shadow of famine, earthquakes and of course Vesuvius. Its poorest inhabitants were famous for l’arte di arrangiarsi, the skill of getting by, somehow acquiring enough coins for a bowl of maccheroni without worrying too much about where the next one was coming from. Northern Italians have seldom liked Naples, but northern Europeans have usually been more generous. Goethe admired l’arte di arrangiarsi and denied that its practitioners were idlers; Naples was ‘a happy country’, he thought, a ‘paradise’ where everyone lived ‘in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness’, himself included. The eighteenth-century city teemed with beggars and vagrants but it was not a violent place. As witnesses and statistics testify, the Neapolitans seldom got drunk or rioted, and the murder rate was low.

For the German poet, Palermo was also a paradise, and Sicily as a whole was ‘the clue to everything’. ‘To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily,’ he bizarrely warned, was ‘not to have seen Italy at all.’ Yet to see Sicily in the eighteenth century was to see a place with no trace of that epoch except in the profusion of its buildings, for the island was immune to the spirit of the Enlightenment. As the Sicilian historian Rosario Romeo observed, the only European development that the island welcomed was the Counter-Reformation; the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had virtually no impact. Unlike Naples, Sicily contained only a handful of reformers, and even they were too timid and tepid to advocate the abolition of feudalism. King Ferdinand had outstanding ministers in Naples who were unable to do anything with an island where the landed classes wanted nothing to change: if the Prince of Palagonia accepted the abolition of his droit du seigneur (which was nominal in most places anyway), he felt justified in imposing a marriage tax on his vassals for having made an apparent sacrifice. Aristocrats in other parts of Italy were showing increasing interest in visiting their estates and making them more productive, but in Sicily landowners did not follow the trend. Instead of riding from time to time over their latifondi, seeing what was happening on their farms, they stayed in Palermo, trundling up and down the marine front each afternoon in their carriages, attended by their liveried footmen. When the great Neapolitan viceroy, the Marquess of Caracciolo, arrived in Palermo in 1781, the nobles united to impede his reforms, especially those that might have led to a reduction of their feudal powers.

Italians may have been dejected by the survival of foreign dynasties in the peninsula, but most of them would have recognized that the eighteenth-century representatives of the Habsburgs and Bourbons were superior to native rulers. Travellers usually identified the pope’s domains as the most misgoverned region of Italy. Goethe contrasted the public buildings in Tuscany, ‘beautiful and imposing … combining usefulness with grace’, with the squalor and disorder in the Papal States, which seemed ‘to keep alive only because the earth refuses to swallow them’. The countryside was neglected, agriculture was stagnant, and internal trade was obstructed by endless tolls; it was difficult to find signs of any real economic activity except in Ancona, which had been a free port since 1732. Rome was the most violent city in the whole of Italy, with far more murders than in Naples, which was three times the size. The French scholar and traveller Charles de Brosses considered its government ‘the worst imaginable’, exactly the opposite of what Machiavelli and Thomas More had ‘envisaged in their Utopias’. Its population of 150,000 was divided, according to him, into three portions, one-third of them being clergy, another third doing a little work, and the last third doing nothing at all.16 Yet neither popes nor cardinals made a serious attempt to improve matters except one, Benedict IV, an intelligent man who had read Voltaire and the philosophes and knew that the art of government required something beyond an attitude of rigid obscurantism. Yet despite his efforts to improve agriculture and reduce taxation, his reforms had achieved little by the time of his death in 1758.

A hundred years later, the Papal States retained their reputation for bad government and were often contrasted with Piedmont, hailed in the mid-nineteenth century as the most progressive of the peninsular states, prosperous and liberal, the only one capable of welding and leading a brave new Italy. Yet in the seventeenth and eighteenth (and early part of the nineteenth) centuries Piedmont was a very backward and reactionary place. To many Italians it seemed primitive and rather foreign; its people, including its monarchs and aristocrats, spoke in French or in local dialect. Compared to the cities of Lombardy and Emilia, those in Piedmont were culturally meagre and so out of touch with the rest of the Po Valley that even the Renaissance had had little influence; Turin itself has no true Renaissance churches except its cathedral. In many parts of northern and central Italy nobles were happy to be merchants and bankers. In Piedmont their career options were limited to three: the army (the most popular), the Church and public service.

The ruling dynasty was the house of Savoy, the Savoyards or, in Italian, Savoia or Sabaudi. They had been counts and later dukes of Savoy in the Middle Ages, ruling Nice and Savoy on one side of the Alps and parts of Piedmont on the other. In 1563 they shifted their capital from Chambéry to Turin because it was clear that the Po Valley offered more room for expansion than Savoy, which was perennially threatened and frequently invaded by France. That military expansion was the dynasty’s principal ambition can be perceived today by anyone wandering around Turin and looking at the many statues of kings, princes and generals waving their swords from the saddle. One of the most martial is in the Piazza San Carlo, where the bronze figure of Emanuel Philibert, mounted on a prancing horse, is pushing his sword back in its scabbard after the Battle of Saint-Quentin, a victory for him and his Spanish allies against the French in 1557. A century later, his successors’ persecution of the Waldensian Protestants in western Piedmont incited John Milton to ask God to avenge his

slaughtered saints, whose bones

Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold …

Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled

Mother with infant down the rocks …

When writing of the Savoia in Piedmont, historians have found it difficult to avoid using adjectives such as wily, unscrupulous, ruthless and opportunistic to describe rulers who merited their reputation for choosing the winning side in a conflict. All those adjectives apply to Emanuel Philibert’s son, Charles Emanuel I, who started several wars during his long reign between 1580 and 1630 and swapped sides between France and Spain depending on which seemed likely to reward him with the most territory. In his even longer reign a century later, Victor Amadeus II too played France off against Spain, and both he and his son, Charles Emanuel III, managed to snaffle large slices of Lombardy. Victor Amadeus was also the duke who, without any claim to either island, had himself made King of Sicily and then King of Sardinia, after which his territories were generally known as the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Such reforms as the government undertook in the early eighteenth century owed little to the Enlightenment: they were inspired by the absolutist example of Louis XIV rather than by any ideas of the philosophes. Thus the armed forces were strengthened and the tax system made more efficient for the purpose of increasing state power. Censorship and political repression were so heavy that several of Piedmont’s small number of intellectuals decided to emigrate. Vittorio Alfieri, the distinguished poet and dramatist, was one who chose to escape, preferring to write in France or Florence where he lived happily with the Countess of Albany, the wife of the Stuart pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Others, less fortunate, were prevented from leaving and confined for long periods in prison. Pietro Giannone, the great anti-papal historian who inspired Gibbon, was kidnapped by Piedmontese agents working with the Inquisition and died in gaol in 1748 after a captivity of twelve years.

The Last of the R.S.I and Mussolini

Benito Mussolini with a department of R. S. I. Italian Social Republic in 1944. Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini Italian politician, journalist, and leader of the National Fascist Party, ruling the country as Prime Minister from 1922 until his ousting in 1943. (Photo by: SeM/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

History came full-circle on 29 October 1944, when Benito Mussolini made his last public speech in Milan. Exactly twenty-two years before, he had set out from this same city in the ‘March on Rome’ that brought him to power. That early triumph had been preceded by a period of violent struggle, just as years of difficult warfare seemed to culminate somehow in the 1944 mass-rally. The outpouring of popular support it generated for him inspired his sometimes flagging spirits, while stiffening the backbone of the Salo Republic under an increasingly heavy siege from the air. His words were broadcast from the Lyric Theater around the world, and commentators everywhere observed that, despite all the reverses he had experienced in the previous year, the Duce seemed to lack none of his fiery rhetoric.

He could not help comparing Italy’s present international crisis to the national challenge presented to her in 1922: “From this city, a new energy went out to save our country from decline and create an epoch of self-determination whose spiritual achievements will outlast every one of its merely material manifestations. So too, that same, ever-young dynamic paces forth from this same place to rescue our invaded land from total destruction, and instead spark restoration of those eternal ideals that made us great!”

Milanese acclaim for Mussolini was not generated solely by celebration of Fascism’s most important anniversary. That same month, shortly before his commemorative speech, volunteer soldiers of the RSI’s Monterosa Division smashed an advance undertaken by superior numbers of Brazilian forces. The Italians followed up their successful defense with a counter-attack of their own that routed the South Americans. More than two years before, President Getulio Vargas had striven to maintain Brazil’s neutrality, but came under increasing pressure from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to enter the war against Italy, even though neither country felt itself aggrieved by each other. While the majority of Brazil’s military, in the army, was inclined toward Fascism, its small navy and smaller air force favored alliance with the Western Allies.

According to historian, James P. Duffy, “Vargas walked a tight-rope between his pro-Axis and pro-Allied military factions so well that American diplomats themselves were never sure what his true feelings were. A State Department recommendation that he request the assistance of U.S. troops to bolster his defenses was politely turned down. Instead, Brazil requested weapons for its army to use in its own defense (against Argentina, not Germany or Italy. Joseph) U.S. military officials were reluctant to send arms for fear that they would be used against American forces should the day come that the United States had to take up the defense of the Brazilian bulge against a German threat.”

Vargas’s lack of enthusiasm for joining the Allies so alarmed Roosevelt, he had his military advisors draw up a ‘Joint Basic Plan for the Occupation of Northeastern Brazil’. F.D.R., who publicly decried Hitler’s invasion of neutral countries, was about to undertake the same measures in South America. On 21 December 1940, he approved Operation Rubber Plan, designed to open with the unannounced naval bombardment of Brazilian shore installations as a prelude to an amphibious landing of Marines.

“Earmarked for action were the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 5th Marines,” writes Duffy, “supported by a fleet centered on the battleship USS Texas, the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, and twelve troop transports. Once the beachhead was secured by the Marines, the 9th Army Division Reinforced was to relieve the Marines and become the occupying force, holding as many strategic locations as possible, with special attention to the airports. Should additional forces be required, the 45th Army Infantry Division was to be in ready reserve. These forces, which were involved in amphibious landing exercises were to be prepared to sail to Brazil on ten days’ notice from the President.”

When Vargas got wind of Operation Rubber Plan in January 1942, he was so horrified, he immediately broke diplomatic ties with Italy, and allowed 150 U.S. Marines to be stationed at several Brazilian airfields. These actions could not quell F.D.R.’s suspicions, however, and it was not until May, when Vargas signed the Brazilian-American Defense Agreement drawn up for his endorsement by Roosevelt’s men in Washington, that “the planned assault and occupation were dropped.”

Despite Yankee intimidation, the Brazilian President tried to keep his country from being dragged into the fighting. More than eight months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, he held back from committing his armed forces in any way, until finally caving in to U.S. pressure, reluctantly issuing a declaration of war against the Axis. The expeditionary force he very gradually assembled was not deployed until July 1944, when it joined the Allies in northern Italy, and was subsequently mauled by the Monterosa Division. This early October victory regained not only territory, but morale, shifting the RSI’s center of power to Milan, where Mussolini relocated his offices from Salo on 18 December.

While he was being cheered through the streets of Milan, the U.S. 5th Army, still bogged down in the mountains south of Bologna and hampered by the headlong flight of their Brazilian allies, was forced to call off its latest offensive. German and Italian SS defending the city beat back all attacks. In just six days, the Americans there suffered 15,700 casualties, beyond anything with which the replacement system could keep up. Mussolini and Marshal Graziani sought to exploit this defensive victory with a fresh offensive, Winterstorm. While German forces were thrusting through France again at the Battle of the Bulge, the Italian Monterosa Division and German 148th Infantry Division simultaneously struck against the American line in the Apennine Mountains. Allied intelligence had dismissed the morale of the Monterose as ‘very low’, and planned to move against it after Christmas. But the Italo-German offensive beat them by twenty-four hours.

In the pre-dawn darkness of 27 December, two German assault battalions rushed the Sommocolonia garrison defended by the U.S. F Company, 2nd Battalion, 366th Regiment supplemented with Communist partisans. Only eighteen of the defenders survived to run for their lives. But the heavy weight of Operation Winterstorm was directed against the 92nd Buffalo Infantry Division, made up entirely of Afro-American troops led by white officers, Major-General Edward M. Almond and Colonel Raymond G. Sherman.

Although eighty medium and heavy field-guns, together with some first-rate German artillery batteries, equipped Operation Winterstorm, its soldiers attacked without tanks or air-cover, all of which the enemy possessed in abundance. Even so, one town after another fell in rapid succession. As a standard precaution against just such an enemy assault, Almond and Sherman had rigged high explosives at vital bridges, but the surprised troops forgot to detonate them. The attackers were rich in mortars, and these they used in concentrated groups to maximize their fire effect. Townspeople in Gallicano, located just outside the battle-zone, reported that U.S. F Company exhibited every sign of panic, fleeting resistance, and general chaos. By nightfall, all attacks were suspended, because the entire American line had crumbled.

The next day, 28 December, the offensive was resumed without resistance. A German assault column literally walked into Pian di Coreglia, its objective, without having to fire a shot. Patrols sent forward as far as the distant village of Calavorno reported that the Buffalo Division appeared to be still in full retreat. Indeed, it had withdrawn from combat in headlong flight. Less than 100 prisoners were taken, because the rest of their comrades were more fleet-footed. But the Axis soldiers netted numerous Browning 12.7 mm machine-guns, bazookas, mortars, and ammunition, together with stocks of much-needed food.

Over the next four days, U.S. warplanes attacked the Axis ground troops trying to defend themselves with a few 20mm and 88mm anti-aircraft guns. American pilots shot up everything in sight, including the Camporgiano hospital, where Germans and Italians were casualties, along with a number of captured G.I.s also being treated for wounds. By New Year’s Day, the murderous air strikes had been called off. Nothing could dislodge the gains made by Operation Winterstorm. These comprised a conquered wedge twenty kilometers wide and nine kilometers deep which stood largely intact throughout the rest of the war. In fact, its defenders continued fighting for days after Mussolini’s death the following year.

According to historian Richard Lamb, “Graziani’s Italian troops were no match for fierce, battle-hardened Gurkhas” of the British 8th Indian Division, which was supposed to have immediately counter-attacked after the Buffalo soldiers pulled back, recapturing Barga. In reality, the town had already been evacuated as unnecessary before the Gurkhas arrived. They encountered no opposition, other than a trio of stragglers–two Italians and a single German soldier–taken later in the vicinity. This only was the 8th Indian Division’s ‘fierce counter-attack’.

In reports to their superiors, the Buffalo Division’s white commanding officers, Almond and Sherman, blamed its failure to contain the Axis offensive on the allegedly poor fighting quality of their black troops. But both German and Italian veterans of the fighting claimed that Afro-American soldiers often resisted with resolute determination. They were routed because of the Operation’s complete surprise, which might have similarly affected any defenders informed by their own leadership that no such attack was expected or even possible.

The propaganda value of Winterstorm was considerable. It discouraged the anti-Fascist partisans, many of whom had already lost stomach for civil war. Even before the Offensive began, the Communist Garibaldi units disbanded and gave up their weapons to German forces from late November to early December. Winterstorm further depressed the Americans’ already low morale following the bloody collapse of their October operations. At the close of the previous month, Fascist militia units seized the so-called ‘Free Republic of Alba’, the first Communist outpost in northern Italy. Simultaneously, the outnumbered, under-equipped men of the RSI’s Monterosa Division and Germany’s 148th Infantry Division drew an influx of new volunteers. The Axis had stood the test of combat at its worst and could still conquer, even at this late hour in the war. Among the high mountains of his homeland, Graziani had redeemed his reputation among Mussolini’s followers as a competent, loyal general.

Operation Winterstorm was the last hurrah of the Axis in Italy, however. Although the gains it won and subsequent attacks carried out by the Italian SS mostly held the enemy at bay throughout the first quarter of 1945, by late March, the RSI’s supply problems had become hopelessly acute. A 200,000-strong partisan army was rising like an irrepressible tidal-wave to swamp the RSI, which had already lost total domination of the skies to American fighter-bombers. In early April, its headquarters at Lake Garda could no longer be defended, and Mussolini was faced with the final, major decision of his life: Establish a last-ditch effort with 5,000 of his closest followers before Valtellina, still controlled by the Waffen-SS, or make a break for the Swiss border.

Incredibly, RSI morale remained mostly high until the last day of hostilities, even among the Volontari de Francia, attached to the Fulmine Battalion of the X Decima MAS 2nd regiment. As late as April 1945, its French volunteers were still able to pull off some stunning successes against overwhelming odds, such as their firefight in the 162nd German Division’s sector, where they closed a gap opened by British commandos. Four months earlier, just 214 men of the Fulmine successfully defended the Tarnova della Selva outpost from an attack by 1,300 Yugoslav partisans. A week later, on 26 January, two companies of the Barbarigo battalion routed Tito’s forces at the Bainsizza plateau, as part of the RSI’s ongoing success in the face of enormous opposition. These, however, were the only bright spots in an otherwise darkening reality.

“Everything was falling apart,” his son, Romano, remembered, “and yet, even in February of 1945, Il Duce refused to give up hope.” Along with the Volontari de Francia and Fulmine, thousands of other volunteers swore to make a last stand for and with Mussolini. “He planned to reach Valtellina with a group of his most loyal followers. He was assured there would be at least 30,000 troops with whom he could lead the final resistance against the Allies’ invasion. For him, this last battle would have represented a sort of purifying sacrifice. ‘This will be the Thermopylae of Fascism,’ he used to say. ‘Like Leonidas and his heroes, I will sacrifice myself to block the enemy’s way.’”

Throughout March, Mussolini enthusiastically busied himself with preparations for a showdown with the enemy at his own ‘Fiery Gates’. For years, Allied leaders vowed to stand him in front of an international tribunal for crimes against humanity. “I can already see the trial they will stage for me at Madison Square Garden,” he laughed, “with people in the stands looking at me as if I were a caged beast. No, it is better to die with weapons raised. Only this can be an end worthy of my existence.”

But early the next month, he inexplicably and irrevocably changed his mind. “These comrades willing to join me at Valtellina will be of more use to their country rebuilding it in the hard times to come,” he told Renato Ricci, head of the RSI militia.10 In fact, they went on to make a final stand of their own for Fascism without the Duce. Led by Italian SS leader, Major Mario Carita, they were finally surrounded by U.S. forces on 20 May, refused to lay down their arms, and perished to the last man in a massive artillery barrage.

Even with the end approaching, Mussolini could not help envisioning the future beyond his own death. “The present war will produce an alteration in order of rank. Great Britain, for instance, is destined to become a second-class power, in view of disclosure of Russian and American strength … In a short time, Fascism will once more shine on the horizon. First of all, because of the persecution to which the Liberals will subject it, showing that liberty is something to reserve to oneself and refuse to others. And, secondly, because of a nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ that little by little will gnaw at the Italian heart. All those who fought in the European and, especially, the African wars will suffer particularly badly from this nostalgia. Time will pass, and the days of Fascism will be missed.”

He was rudely snapped back into present reality on 23 April when Marshal Graziani reported that the Wehrmacht in Italy was about to surrender. That evening, Mussolini decided to make for Switzerland, because he believed only there would he have an opportunity to publicize a collection of original documents that would, in his mind, justify his past conduct before world history. Both the German military authorities and Fascist die-hards strenuously urged him to forego any attempt to reach Switzerland, because the entire countryside, they warned, swarmed with partisans. His subordinates had already prepared, without his authorization, several means of escape. There was a CANT seaplane or a Sparviero tri-motor to take him to Franco’s Spain, a four-motor Piaggio air-ambulance capable of reaching the Canary Islands, and a long-range Savoia-Marchetti Marsupiale standing by for a transatlantic flight all the way to what would soon become Juan Peron’s Argentina.

Hermann Goering, who certainly had enough of his own problems at the time, offered a Junkers-52, its Luftwaffe insignia and swastikas replaced by deceptive Croatian insignia, to take Claretta Petacci, along with her parents and sister, Myriam, to Barcelona. But the Duce’s mistress preferred to remain by the side of her lover. His son, Vittorio, pleaded with him to hide from the blood-crazed partisans in a Milan apartment at least until the Anglo-Americans arrived. Mussolini shunned all these avenues of escape, even unto the last possible moment. “I don’t want to beg for salvation,” he stated emphatically, “while the finest men are sacrificing themselves for me and for Italy’s dignity!”

Undeterred by warnings of local partisan activity and not tempted by offers of refuge, he set out in a German SS motor column that included a small truck carrying his precious papers. “If I advance,” he had always said, “follow me. If I retreat, kill me. If they kill me, vindicate me.”

The Italian Atomic Bomb I

For most of the 20th Century following the end of the Second World War, military historians affirmed that the American nuclear program was far in advance of similar research undertaken anywhere else in the world, particularly by German scientists, who never came close to developing, let alone deploying an atomic weapon of their own. But the continuing release of hitherto neglected documents and eyewitness accounts from the final years of that conflict are beginning to reveal some altogether different conclusions.

It now appears certain that the Axis powers, including Italy, outstripped the Allies’ nuclear research in almost all respects. For example, Italian nuclear physicists were ahead of their foreign colleagues in the years immediately prior to World War Two. By 1936, Enrico Fermi and Franco Rosetti belonged to Europe’s foremost atomic research program. Their team, however, was divided with the anti-Semitic legislation that became law in Italy two years later, because some of the scientists, including Fermi, had Jewish wives.

They relocated to the United States, where their work led to America’s atomic bomb, which further divided their ranks, because men like Rosetti staunchly opposed the application of nuclear power for military purposes. Addressing Fermi and the others, he told them unequivocally, “you have disgraced your profession and stained your hands with blood no amount of time can cleanse”. Rosetti was so appalled by their “betrayal of humanitarian science” in building an atomic bomb, he turned his back on nuclear physics to embrace an entirely different science: paleontology.

His colleagues who remained behind in Italy, however, had no such moral misgivings. On the eve of hostilities, in 1939, scientists at the University of Milan issued the first international patent for an atomic reactor. Its potential for the creation of an explosive device without destructive parallel was immediately recognized, given the war-fever of the times, and state allocations were provided for expanding practical laboratory investigation into a potentially new arms technology. Fermi and the others who had migrated to America did not take all University results with them. They knew as much or less about creating a nuclear bomb than their colleagues back in Milan before the reactor patent was issued.

Atomic research in Italy proceeded slowly, if deliberately for months after Mussolini’s declaration of war against the Western Allies in June 1940, but virtually came to a stand-still by year’s end, due to severe shortages in essential resources requisitioned by the Esercito and Regia Marina for conventional weapons’ production. The University of Milan physicists were further compromised by that venerable institution’s inadequate facilities and out-dated equipment. Their complaints did not go unheard, however, because they found in the Duce an ardent admirer of their research. During May 1942, he transferred the lot of them to the Third Reich, where some of its superior, state-of-the-art laboratories had already been set aside for that nation’s own nuclear development.

The Italians found conditions entirely satisfactory, and enthusiastically shared their own atomic reactor information with German colleagues. Moving the physicists to the Reich proved inadvertently fortuitous after the Allied invasion of southern Italy made relocating men and material to Mussolini’s Salo Republic, in the north, increasingly difficult from mid-1944 onwards. By then, however, all nuclear research, of which the Italians were part, had come under the purview of the SS, primarily for reasons of security. Little is known about the Italian contribution at this time, although several high-ranking officers in the Duce’s new armed forces allegedly witnessed German atomic testing, suggesting they were involved in its development at the highest levels of security.

Occasionally, Mussolini himself implied the deployment of nuclear weapons in the near future. As his situation in northern Italy became more desperate, he dropped hints with greater frequency, always in an air of self-confidence. As late as 21 April 1945, he told his Chief of Staff, General Graziani, “It is necessary to resist for another month. I have enough in my hand to win the peace.”

There is no doubt he was referring specifically to the impending availability of atom bombs, because the very next day he wrote in his Political Testament, “The wonder weapons are our hope. It is laughable and senseless for us to threaten anybody at this moment without a basis in reality for these threats. The well-known mass-destruction bombs are nearly ready. In only a few days, with the utmost meticulous intelligence, Hitler will probably execute this fearful blow, because he will have full confidence. It appears that there are three bombs, and each has an astonishing operation. The construction of each unit is fearfully complex, and of a lengthy time of completion.” Conventional historians claim he had been duped by Hitler’s promises. Yet, Mussolini’s statements fit perfectly into the context of the times.

Seven months before, a Luftwaffe flak rocket expert flying “from Ludwigslust (south of Luebeck), about twelve to fifteen kilometers from an atomic bomb test station … noticed a strong, bright illumination of the whole atmosphere, lasting about two seconds. The clearly visible pressure wave escaped the approaching and following cloud formed by the explosion. This wave had a diameter of about one kilometer when it became visible and the color of the cloud changed frequently … The diameter of the still-visible pressure wave was at least 9,000 meters while remaining visible for at least fifteen seconds. The combustion was lightly felt from my observation plane in the form of pulling and pushing. About one hour later, I started with an He 111 from the A/D24 at Ludwigslust and flew in an easterly direction. Shortly after the start, I passed through the almost complete overcast (between 3,000-4,000-meter altitude). A cloud shaped like a mushroom with turbulent, billowing sections (at about 7,000-meter altitude) stood, without any seeming connections, over the spot where the explosion took place.”

“Strong electrical disturbances and the impossibility to continue radio communication as by lightning, turned up. Because of the P-38s operating in the area Wittenberg-Mersburg, I had to turn to the north, but observed a better visibility at the bottom of the cloud where the explosion occurred (sic).”

Doubtless, the pilot saw the explosion of history’s first atomic bomb. Among its better known witnesses was Dr. Josef Goebbels. Immediately after the early October 1944 blast, the Reich Propaganda Minister reported in a national broadcast that he had just seen a test of Germany’s latest military technology, “the awesome power of which made me catch my breath and stopped my heartbeat.” Such “weapons of mass-destruction”, he assured his listeners, were far beyond anything imagined by the enemy, and capable of annihilation on an unprecedented scale. Historians assume he was referring exclusively to V-2 rockets then being mass-produced in Germany’s underground factories. But the ballistic missiles had already been raining on London for more than a month by the time Dr. Goebbels made his radio appearance. Moreover, it was only at this same moment that Hitler finally authorized production of an atomic bomb. Hitherto, he had been unwilling to allocate military spending on an expensive, unproven theory. But the successful Luebeck experiment changed his mind. Almost immediately after receiving the Führer’s authorization, his scientists proceeded with a second nuclear test during the night of 11 October at Ruegen, Germany’s largest island in the Baltic. This event is particularly cogent to our discussion, because the only foreigner allowed to witness it was an Italian Army officer. His attendance was all the more remarkable, in that security was so tight, only a handful of select observers from the Wehrmacht and Nazi Party was given clearance. Indeed, even any knowledge of the experiment had been restricted to just a dozen individuals outside the physicists. One of those privileged persons was Benito Mussolini.

Hitler had notified him the previous month of the upcoming test. It was then that 27-year-old Luigi Romersa was summoned to the Duce residing at his Salo headquarters. “I want to know more about these weapons,” he told the veteran Italian Army officer, now a war-correspondent for Milan’s Corriere della Sera. “I asked Hitler about them, but he was less than forthcoming.” Armed with letters of introduction to both Dr. Goebbels and the Führer himself, Mussolini’s personal envoy flew non-stop to Berlin, where he was immediately taken in charge by SS guards. The following night, they drove him for two hours through a constant downpour to the coast of northern Germany. There, they accompanied Romersa aboard a swift motorboat that took them to the shores of the Baltic island of Ruegen.

On 12 October 1944, he and a few other men–high-ranking members of the German Army, SS and Nazi Party–were conducted by several physicists to a model village of ordinary dwellings surrounded by tall trees and populated exclusively by sheep. After a cursory inspection, the guests walked about one kilometer away to a concrete bunker fitted with a few, small observation ports of very thick glass. Even so, Romersa and company were instructed to wear darkly tinted goggles for what an official described would be “a test of the disintegration bomb. It is the most powerful explosive that has yet been developed. Nothing can withstand it.” A series of warning sirens and flashing, red lights announced the imminent detonation, which occurred as “a sudden, blinding flash” followed by “a thick cloud of smoke” that “took the shape of a column, and then that of a big flower,” as a tremor went through the concrete bunker. No one was allowed to leave for several hours, until the lingering effects of the explosion had dissipated.

“The bomb gives off deathly rays of utmost toxicity,” they were told. Before being allowed to leave the bunker, scientists and guests had to don white, coarse, fibrous cloaks of asbestos with thick, glass eye-holes. Thus covered, they returned to the blast site, and were appalled at what they saw. The grass was now the color of leather, and “trees around had been turned to carbon. No leaves. Nothing alive.” The sheep were “burnt to cinders.” The sturdy houses visited just a few hours earlier “had disappeared, broken into little pebbles of debris.”

Romersa returned at once to Italy, where he briefed Mussolini on his experience. The Duce reacted, not with joy, but dark concern, saying nothing more than sternly warning the Milan journalist to regard his visit to Ruegen as a state secret of the utmost priority. True to this command, he said nothing of the October 1944 nuclear test until two years after the war, in a newspaper article. But when “everyone said I was mad”, Romersa published a fuller account in Oggi magazine, during the 1950s.

What Romersa left out of his account was nonetheless obvious enough; namely, that he was one of the very few observers allowed to witness the Ruegen exercise only because Italian physicists were an integral part of atomic research. Had they not been vital to the supremely classified Axis program, the SS would have never cleared a foreign newspaper correspondent (of all people!), no matter how politically impressive the source of his credentials, to Germany’s most clandestine weapon, especially so late in the war, when the Third Reich’s options for victory were rapidly diminishing. Romersa’s chief task was to report on progress made by the Italo-German scientific team and to inform Mussolini that he could expect an operational nuclear device by spring the following year. This only explains the Duce’s statements in late April 1945, regarding the imminent availability of a ‘disintegration bomb’ and the need ‘to resist for another month’.

Like Mussolini, Hitler initially evinced a similar lack of enthusiasm for atomic weaponry. As far back as 1941, when Carl von Weizsäcker, one of the leaders of Germany’s nuclear research team, filed a draft patent application for a plutonium bomb, the Führer expressed his skepticism in a private conversation with Otto Skorzeny. He was the same SS commando-leader who, two years later, would rescue the Duce from Gran Sasso. “This device, if their description of it proves to be correct,” Hitler concluded, “will have very little tactical value, because rarely are enemy concentrations large and dense enough, either on land or at sea, to be effectively targeted in a 1.5 kilometer blast-radius, except for industrial cities, which conventional air-strikes are presently quite capable of destroying, as this war has already shown.

“Their atomic bomb is actually a strategic weapon designed to kill large numbers of civilian populations confined in urban centers, thereby brow-beating a people into surrender. As such, it has less military utility than propaganda value as an instrument of terror. By the very nature of its destructiveness, it has an automatic, built-in circuit-breaker: If we were to cause a plutonium explosion over London, it would only be a matter of time before the British did the same thing to Berlin.

“Identical reasoning has prevented the use by all sides, even the Soviets, of poison gas in this conflict. Everyone knows the consequences. Von Weizsäcker and his colleagues should nevertheless continue their research. How wonderful if they could come up with an atomic-powered U-boat or transport-plane! Those I would gladly fund. But they will not get many Reichsmarks from me for a weapon whose only efficacy, so far, is the propagandistically detrimental, militarily useless incineration of non-combatants.”

While his armies were victorious on every front, Hitler could afford such views. But as hundreds of thousands of German civilians were being consumed in the flames of Anglo-American carpet-bombing, he reversed his original disdain for an atomic bomb, especially after the Allied landings at Normandy, in June 1944. The paired nuclear test five months later, although successful, was a relatively small affair, and a final experiment with a substantially larger discharge was necessary before military application could take place.

This occurred at the troop parade ground and barracks at Orhdruf, in south-central Thuringia, when two uranium devices were detonated on 4 March 1945. Both were observed by Soviet spies, who radioed the Kremlin that the Orhdruf explosions produced a “highly radioactive effect.” As part of their experiment, the SS officers, who supervised the dual test, confined captured Red Army commissars from the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp to barracks at the center of the blast.

“In many cases, their bodies were completely destroyed,” according to the spies, who added that such a weapon could “slow down our offensive”. Kremlin officials deemed their report so important, Josef Stalin himself received one of the four copies stamped ‘Urgent Priority’. But if he was alarmed, Hitler was overjoyed. On 9 March, Dr. Goebbels told a large audience at Goerlitz, “Just the day before yesterday [three days after Thuringia’s two nuclear bombs were successfully detonated], he told me, ‘I believe so firmly that we will master this crisis, and I believe so firmly that when we throw our armies into the new offensive, we will beat the enemy and drive him back, and I believe so firmly that we will someday add victory to our banners, as firmly as I have ever believed anything in my life’.”

The Führer’s late-hour elation was remarkably similar in tone to Mussolini’s April 21st statement that he had enough in his hand “to win the peace”, because both leaders hoped that Hitler’s Siegeswaffe would be ready to turn the tables on the Allies “one minute before midnight”. But by the time the SS completed final nuclear testing at Orhdruf, the military situation had surpassed even the power of an atomic bomb to reverse.

The Italian Atomic Bomb II

Preparations for deployment of nuclear arms may have begun in Italy almost a year before the Luebeck blast witnessed by Hans Zinsser, when a specimen of the Regia Aeronautica’s only four-engine heavy bomber appears to have been specifically modified to accommodate such a weapon. The Piaggio P.133 was an advanced version of the P.108B, unique not only because a single example was produced, but due to its unusual streamlining. The standard crew of ten men was reduced to just two–pilot and navigator/ bombardier–while both its armor-plating and defensive machine-guns were stripped to afford a heavier payload.

The quartet of 1,500-hp Piaggio P.XIIRC.35 eighteen-cylinder radial engines was upgraded for improved power, and the bomb-bay enlarged. Although the lone P.133 was never officially designated an ‘atomic bomber’, extraordinarily high security surrounding its manufacture, together with the suggestive features of its design alterations, left some post-war historians wondering if the big Piaggio was intended to drop a nuclear bomb amid the Allied fleets massing for the invasion of the Italian mainland after the fall of Sicily. The P.133 might have been ready to participate in such a mission, but, clearly, no such device was yet available.

The Piaggio had to be modified for its unique task by Mussolini’s air force technicians, because Italy’s only purpose-built nuclear bomber fell into Allied hands after the Badoglio armistice of September 1943. Although officially known as a ‘transport’, the Savoia-Marchetti S.M.95 was ordered by the Regia Aeronautica at a period in the war when such a model was not needed, even senseless, which alone casts serious doubts on the real intention of its designers. Powered by four Alfa Romeo engines, it was twenty-three meters long, with a thirty-five-meter-wing span, which afforded it a tremendous lifting capacity. But the monster’s outstanding feature was its prodigious range of 12,005 kilometers. The S.M.95’s ability to carry a heavy payload over great distances suggest to some aviation historians that the ‘transport’ was actually intended to deliver a heavy bomb to cities along America’s Eastern Seaboard.

The idea for an aerial assault on New York originated with Piaggio’s chief test pilot, Nicolo Lana, in April 1942. He volunteered to fly a stripped-down P.23R, a tri-motor that had established several long-distance records before the war, dropping a single 1,000-kg. bomb on the city center, then ditching near the Nantucket Lighthouse, where he and his flight engineer would be picked up by a waiting submarine. His simple scheme offered every prospect of success. U.S. coastal defenses during the first half of 1942, when German U-boats prowling off America’s eastern shores scored some of their greatest successes, were appallingly weak. Unfortunately for Lana’s plan, the only P.23R in existence was destroyed in a landing accident near Albenga, and no other Italian plane had the Piaggio’s outstanding range.

Had the mission been carried out, damage to New York would have been inconsequential, but the effect on Allied morale at a time when the war was not going well for the Western powers would have made a powerful impact, resulting in a triumph for Axis propaganda. Strategically, the consequences could have been no less significant, as the Americans would have doubtlessly diverted much-needed resources and manpower to protecting North America from further attack.

Despite the P.23R’s mishap, Air Staff commanders had been intrigued by Lana’s proposal, but realized the Regia Aeronautica did not possess another plane that could fly the distance to New York without stopping en route for refuelling by a submarine-tanker, an overly complex operation made all the more hazardous by increasingly effective Allied counter-measures. A new aircraft conceived specifically for such a mission needed to be designed and built. Hence, the Savoia-Marchetti S.M.95. Under cover as a ‘transport’, its first prototype flew on 8 May 1943. Performance was very good, military modifications were made, and flight-testing began on 2 September. Six days later, the Badoglio government switched sides, and the imminent mission was scrubbed. When the lone SM.95 was seized by Badoglio’s government authorities, RSI planners were forced to modify the conventional Piaggio for the same purpose supposed to have been fulfilled by the four-engined Savoia-Marchetti.

Underscoring the probability of Regia Marina preparations for a specially redesigned aircraft able to carry an atomic bomb was the German Luftwaffe’s simultaneous modification of its own heavy bomber, the Heinkel He. 177 Greif, or ‘Vulture’. According to military air historian, David Mondey, work on a Greif at the Letov plant, in Prague, was intended “to provide an enlarged bomb-bay to accommodate the planned German atomic bomb”. The conversion began in late 1943, just when the Piaggio was being redressed in Italy. Not coincidentally, some of the German nuclear research was at that time being carried out in Czechoslovakia, where the Heinkel bomber was also converted to carry an atomic device. It would appear then, that both German and Italian Air Force officials anticipated the availability of atomic bombs sometime in late 1943.

One may only surmise that the contemporary political upheaval and de facto civil war that afflicted Italy with the arrest of Mussolini and subsequent turmoil in the wake of Badoglio’s September armistice prevented transportation of the delicate, top secret, fissionable materials and valuable equipment from reaching the Piaggio’s airstrip. The bomb intended for its sortie against the Allied invasion fleet may have been, moreover, a hastily packaged contingency than a real finished product, and the Italo-German physicists welcomed Italy’s temporarily stabilized military situation as a necessary breathing-space to properly finalize their many years of work in the creation and deployment of a true weapon less encumbered by the potentially disastrous uncertainties inherent in incomplete research.

While tactical use of a nuclear weapon against the Anglo-American invasion of Italy may have been the most practical option envisioned for it by the Commando Supremo, the propaganda value of such a device would not have been missed by Mussolini or men like Julio Valerio Borghese. Borghese was Commander of the X Light Flotilla, whose human-torpedoes had scored spectacular successes against British ships at Alexandria and Gibraltar. With America’s entry into the war on 9 December 1941, he believed these unconventional submersibles represented Italy’s best hope for striking the U.S. mainland. Borghese recalled later, “the psychological effect on the Americans, who had not yet undergone any war offensive on their own soil, would, in our opinion, far outweigh the material damage which might be inflicted. And ours was the only practical plan, so far as I am aware, ever made to carry the war into the United States.”

Beyond its obvious propaganda value, such an attack would sink several valuable freighters, and New York’s important harbor might be sufficiently damaged, as was the port of Alexandria, to close it for lengthy repairs. Far more significantly, following the attack, the Americans could be counted upon to divert substantial effort, materials and weapons from their war effort for the reinforced defense of not only New York, but the entire eastern seaboard, just as the Japanese withdrew many of their forces to protect Tokyo after it had received unimportant damage from 1942’s Doolittle raid. German V-1 missile attacks against London two years later prompted a similar reaction from the British. As the Doolittle raid raised American morale after months of uninterrupted bad news, Borghese’s New York operation would have an identical impact on Italian spirits. Potential repercussions–strategically, economically and psychologically–would certainly pay high military dividends on a meager investment in men and materiel.

The Duce and Commando Supremo heartily approved the scheme in late January 1942, and Borghese got to work on it immediately. The operation was set to take place in mid-December, when daylight would have been minimal and the extended darkness allowed his crews maximum time to carry out the operation. After dark, their vessel was to be delivered into the waters off Fort Hamilton. From there, it would cruise up the Hudson River to the merchant shipping docks along West Street, where ‘frogmen’ in scuba-gear would attach explosive charges to five or six freighters. After scuttling their submersible, the crews could choose to either surrender or go into hiding. Several thousand U.S. dollars were, in fact, provided each man, in the event he chose to avoid capture.

Due to the limited range of the Maiale human-torpedoes which attacked the British Fleet at Alexandria, Borghese envisioned using one of the Regia Marina’s pocket-submarines then operating with good success in the Black Sea against the Soviet Navy. But these ‘midgets’ were still too large for accommodation aboard a standard ocean-going submarine on a transatlantic mission from Europe to North America. Instead, he resurrected an earlier two-man submersible known as the Goeta-Caproni Project (after the inventor, Vincenzo Goeta, and its parent company), inaugurated in 1936.

Following extensive redesign, especially for silent running, two examples of the craft, which had been stored and almost forgotten for the previous six years, were tested under conditions of extreme secrecy in secluded Lake Iseo, later the site of another top secret undertaking, Churchill’s alleged Allied-Axis alliance against the Soviet Union. One of the submersibles sank irretrievably to the bottom of the lake, but the other achieved an operational range of 113 kilometers while cruising beneath the surface at six knots, performing admirably at forty-five-meter depths.

Renamed CA 2, it was ready for action by mid-summer 1942, when Borghese contacted Admiral Karl Dönitz. The commander of the German U-boat arm was intrigued by the project’s innovative audacity, but expressed his regret that he simply could not spare a single Milchkuh, or ‘Milk Cow’ submarine-refueller as a carrier for the CA-2 until late fall. Borghese knew that would not leave him enough time to make the necessary modifications, install the submersible, or test and train with it, so he visited the Italians’ Atlantic submarine headquarters at Bordeaux. Rear-Admiral Romolo Polacchini, the base commander, was enthusiastically taken with the proposal, for which only the Regia Marina’s best submarine was good enough, in his opinion.

Lieutenant Gianfranco Priaroggia’s Leonardo Da Vinci had just returned on 1 July after sinking 20,000 tons of Allied merchant shipping in the course of a single patrol, and both commander and submarine seemed ideally suited for the New York operation. The capacious Marconi class vessel could easily accommodate the CA 2, after its forward deck-gun and mounting were replaced by a cradle between the resistant hull and superstructure. Two large cranes on either side of the cradle lifted the pocket-submarine in or out of its cradle in which it rested, its upper one-forth exposed above decks. Both cranes folded away automatically into their own watertight compartments. “The operation against New York,” Borghese stated, “had passed out of the planning stage into that of practical operation.”

The complicated remodeling went under way with thorough but unusual haste, allowing extensive sea trials to begin on 9 September. The equipment and procedures required some adjustments, but the CA 2 with its two crew members was consistently released and recovered without difficulty, even in somewhat rough seas. Before month’s end, Lieutenant Priaroggia announced both his Leonardo Da Vinci and the midget-submersible were ready to undertake their mission. Borghese proudly notified his superiors in Rome, informing them that he would sail for New York on 19 December. The attack was scheduled to commence during the Winter Solstice. But too his shock and dismay, the Supermarina responded that the mission must be postponed for another year.

“New technological developments” then still in the making would render the operation far more effective than if it were attempted in 1942. Since such a surprise attack was a singular undertaking that could not be repeated, its maximum destructive potential had to be assured. No further explanation was given, although Borghese agreed that if the CA 2 could be eventually provided with more powerful explosive charges, as implied in the Supermarina communication, the long wait would be worthwhile. In the meantime, he pulled military strings to have additional pocket-submarines built and tested.

For the New York attack the CA-Class was heavily modified with the torpedoes removed and four large mines instead added to a remodeled superstructure. A diver lock-out compartment was built into the hull with hatches on both top and bottom. This allowed the frogmen to access the midget submarine directly from the dry interior of the host submarine.

Planned Special Forces attack on New York, 1943

The Leonardo Da Vinci had her deck-gun restored after the CA 2 was removed, but all other modifications for the submersible were undisturbed in preparation for the rescheduled 1943 mission, as Priaroggia was promoted to Lieutenant Commander “for outstanding service in war” on 6 May. But seventeen days later, his submarine was depth-charged by the British frigate, Ness, and a destroyer, HMS Active, just off Cape Finestrelle. There were no survivors. By this time, the war in the Atlantic had drastically shifted against all Axis vessels, both under and on the sea, but Borghese was undeterred in his determination to hold the Supermarina to its word: New York must be attacked during the next Winter Solstice.

He turned from submarines to aircraft as the alternative delivery system for his CA 2. The specimen he chose was one of the outstanding airplanes of the war, a maritime reconnaissance model with exceptional flight characteristics. The CANT 511 was originally designed in September 1937, as the world’s largest double-pontoon hydroplane, intended for civilian flights carrying mail, cargo and sixteen passengers between Rome and Latin America. The thirty-four-ton aircraft was powered to a cruising speed of 405 km/hr by four 1,350-hp Piaggio PXII C. 35 radial engines. At the time of its maiden flight, in October 1940, five months after Italy’s entry into the war, the 511 was converted into a military role. Final testing took place between late February and early March 1942, when test pilot Mario Stoppani succeeded in taking off and landing the fully loaded CANT in rough seas with three-meter waves and winds gusting between fifty and sixty-five km/hr.

This extraordinarily rugged stability and the hydroplane’s exceptional range of 5,000 kilometers seemed ideally suited for special, unconventional missions, including plans to free fifty Italian pilots and soldiers imprisoned in far-off Jeddah with a commando raid. Using the CANT to bomb Bathumi and Poti, Soviet Black Sea ports, or Baku, on the Caspian Sea, and the Persian Gulf’s oil facilities at Bahrain, were seriously considered. But Borghese laid claim to the only pair of 511s before these schemes could be sanctioned, and had the machines transported to Lake Treviso for modification.

Seating arrangements and cargo areas were torn out to make room for a pair of human-torpedoes. Ezo Grossi, who had since replaced Rear-Admiral Romolo Polacchini as the Italian base commander at Bordeaux, provided a large, ocean-going submarine-tanker to rendezvous at prearranged coordinates with the giant hydro-planes on two separate occasions–once coming and going across the Atlantic Ocean–to refuel the sea-planes en route to the target.

While such air-sea refuelling stops had been undertaken by Italian crews earlier in the war, none, of course, were conducted over such immense distances made especially perilous by Allied supremacy at and over the sea. Even so, renovation of the 511 began in June 1943, and proceeded with determination until the air frame suffered some damage during a low-level run by USAAF fighters. Repairs commenced at once, but before they could be completed the Italian armistice was announced on 8 September, and the project abandoned. At sixty tons, however, the CA 2 was too heavy to be carried by any aircraft, so Borghese returned to the Maiale for his New York attack.

As intriguing as the operation itself was its sudden postponement in late 1942, when men and equipment were ready to carry out their mission. The suspension occurred just as Piaggio’s alleged ‘atomic bomber’ was waiting for a nuclear device to be installed in its specially modified bomb-bay. Did the Supermarina delay the New York attack by twelve months because Mussolini expected to have an atomic bomb at his disposal by late fall or early winter 1943? His overthrow in mid-summer of that year rendered that project mute, at least until he could assert his new political base in Salo. Certainly, by April 1945, he talked as though such a weapon were about to fall into his hands.

Whatever documentation may have specified an Italian nuclear device must, of necessity, have been highly restricted. If such documentation did exist, it may still lie buried in the undisclosed archives of British intelligence. Naturally, such information would have been classified as the most secret of all and restricted to only very few supreme officials on a strictly need-to-know basis. The paper trail left by a weapon with the potential to reverse the course of history must have been necessarily scant and thoroughly covered up by the authorities. Abundant, if circumstantial evidence nonetheless suggests that the Italians were on their way to building an atomic bomb in the late 1930s. From 1942, they combined their efforts with German physicists in a joint attempt to deliver an operable device in time to win the war for the Axis. Hence, the Duce’s urgent appeal to his forces to “hold out for another month”.

As early as fall 1942, his scientists may have informed him that the bomb would be ready by late the following year, when the singular Piaggio P.133 stood by to receive its unique payload, and Borghese’s human-torpedoes would have been ready to attack New York with something more than a few explosive charges magnetically fixed to the hulls of freighters tied up at the West Street dock. Political upheavals, however, intervened to prevent the deployment of such advanced weaponry.

Someday future investigators probing the declassified files of British intelligence may find wartime documents outlining the extent of nuclear research undertaken by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Perhaps when such important papers come to light they could reveal that New York City missed becoming history’s first victim of a nuclear holocaust by margins too narrow to contemplate.

Battle of Novara (Ariotta)

The French invasion of Milan, 1513

By the time this treaty with Venice was concluded, Louis XII, King of France (1498–1515), was rid of one of his most determined opponents. Julius II died during the night of 20 February 1513. The new pope was Giovanni de’ Medici, who took the title Leo X. Much younger than Julius, he was not so belligerent and was far more subtle and changeable in diplomacy. Those who dealt with him would find him hard to read, except they soon discovered his fixed purpose to elevate the Medici into a princely dynasty: domination over Florence was not enough. Inevitably, his elevation to the papal throne strengthened his family’s position in Florence, and Leo would effectively dictate Florentine foreign policy.

As he prepared to try to recover Milan, Louis could not be sure what the new pope would do, nor count on the Florentines as allies. He might have hoped to have neutralized at least one opponent in Italy, making a truce with Ferdinand in April for a year. But the truce covered the border war between France and Spain, not Italy, so Ferdinand could still oppose the French there. Nevertheless, Cardona had already been ordered to return to Naples with the army, leaving the infantry behind in the pay of others, if possible.

Cardona had not left before the French invaded Milan. Under the command of La Trémoille and Giangiacomo Trivulzio, the French troops – 1,200-1,400 lances, 600 light horse and 11,500 infantry – crossed the Alps and mustered in Piedmont in mid-May, with 2,500 Italian troops. In late May Massimiliano was reported to have 1,200 Spanish and Neapolitan men-at-arms, 1,000 light horse, 800 Spanish infantry, 3,000 Lombard infantry and 7,000 Swiss. But Cardona, having sent troops to help Massimiliano defend the north-west of the duchy, quickly withdrew them, thus facilitating the rapid French advance. He kept his men at Piacenza, which he had taken over with Parma for Massimiliano after the death of Julius. In order to secure the pope’s support against the French, Massimiliano agreed to give them up to Leo, but no papal troops were sent to help him. The duke was left with the Swiss and what Lombards rallied to his defence. On the other side, d’Alviano was under orders from Venice to join up with the French only if the Spanish joined up with the Swiss. The Venetians were confi dent that, lacking men-at-arms, the Swiss alone should not pose much of a problem for the French, and the campaign would soon be over.

By early June, the French had overrun much of the west of the duchy. In Genoa, with the aid of a French fleet, the Adorno and Fieschi deposed Doge Giano Campofregoso and Antoniotto Adorno became governor there for Louis. In the east, the Venetian army under Bartolomeo d’Alviano took Cremona; Lodi and the Ghiaradadda rose against Massimiliano. The city of Milan, where a French garrison still held the fortress, was in confusion, waiting to see the outcome of the campaign. Only the areas around Como and Novara, where the Swiss were concentrated, still held for Massimiliano, who was at Novara.

The Battle

Throughout the winter, Louis had been trying to come to an accord with the Swiss. The seriousness of his intent was signalled by his sending La Trémoille and Trivulzio to Lucerne to conduct the negotiations, and his ordering the surrender of the fortresses of Locarno and Lugano to the Swiss. Happy to have the fortresses, but not to have the French back in Milan, in response to the invasion the Swiss rapidly organized and despatched several thousand reinforcements. These headed for Novara; news of their approach made La Trémoille decide on 5 June to raise the siege of the city that had just begun. A column of 7,000-8,000 Swiss skirted the French positions and entered Novara that day, to join the 4,000 already there with Massimiliano.

By nightfall, the French had travelled only a few miles, and the units made camp where they halted, dispersed as they were for the march. Consequently, they were ill-prepared for the attack launched by the Swiss before dawn. The Swiss had little artillery and only a few light horse with them, and the terrain, divided by ditches bordered by bushes, could have favoured the defenders had they had time to take position behind them. But the Swiss kept their disciplined battle order under fi re from the French artillery and overcame the infantry. The stiffest resistance they encountered was from about 6,000 landsknechts, who took the heaviest casualties when they were left to fight alone after the French and Italian infantry were routed. The French men-at-arms made little effort to defend them; the ground was not suited to the deployment of heavy cavalry. Nearly all the French horse escaped unscathed, abandoning their pavilions and the baggage train to the Swiss. Their artillery was captured too, and the elated Swiss dragged it back to Novara, with their own wounded men.

The battle of Ariotta (Novara) marked the zenith of the military reputation of the Swiss during the Italian Wars. Around 10,000 men, the majority of whom had reached Novara only hours before after several days’ march (and without waiting for 3,000 further reinforcements who were hard on their heels), with virtually no supporting cavalry and very little artillery, had routed a numerically superior French army, including a contingent of landsknechts almost as large as the main battle square of around 7,000 men the Swiss had formed, over terrain ill-adapted to manoeuvring such a large formation in good order. It was a tribute to the training and discipline, as well as the bravery and physical hardiness, of the Swiss infantry. The element of surprise had of course helped them, together with the fact the French army had been so widely spread out and had not prepared a defensive position, but this did not detract from the achievement of the Swiss or the humiliation of the French.

After the rout of the French army, the Spanish finally joined the Swiss to drive them out of Italy. Cardona sent 400 lances under Prospero Colonna to support Massimiliano. He also sent Ferrante Francesco d’Avalos, marchese di Pescara, with 3,000 infantry and 200 light horse to Genoa to assist the Fregoso faction in deposing Antoniotto Adorno on 17 June and replacing him with Ottaviano Campofregoso as doge. This displeased the Swiss, who had already made advantageous terms with Adorno. The Swiss took Asti, advanced in Piedmont and pillaged much of Monferrato.

It was evident that Louis could not send another expedition to Italy that year. In France, he was facing an invasion in the north by Henry VIII of England and Maximilian; Henry took Thérouanne and Tournai, and in August inflicted another humiliating defeat on the French at Guinegatte. That month the Swiss invaded Burgundy, laying siege to Dijon. La Trémoille made a treaty with them promising large payments and renouncing the king’s claim to Milan. The Swiss withdrew, but Louis would not ratify the treaty.

More than ever, the Swiss dominated the duchy of Milan. Massimiliano acknowledged the debt he owed for the blood they had shed to secure his rule, and agreed extra payments and compensation to those who had fought for him, totalling 400,000 Rhenish florins. But he did not have the money to satisfy them, nor could he afford to pay them to attack the Venetians, as Cardinal Schinner suggested.

Swiss and Landsknechts – Rivalry and Blood-Feud

Swiss fighters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good fighters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.

A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.

The fight was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery fire alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even fight each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery fire, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.

In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:

• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.

• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.

• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.

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