Pistola Automatica Beretta modello 1934

Beretta automatics were amongst the most sought after of war trophies. Although of excellent design, they were really too light to be effective service pistols, but as personal weapons to officers they were highly prized.

The little Pistola Automatica Beretta modello 1934 is one of the joys of the pistol collector’s world, for it is one of those pistols that has its own built-in attraction. It was adopted as the standard Italian army service pistol in 1934, but it was then only the latest step in a long series of automatic pistols that could be traced back as far as 1915. In that year numbers of a new pistol design were produced to meet the requirements of the expanding Italian army, and although the Pistola Automatica Beretta modello 1915 was widely used it was never officially accepted as a service model, These original Beretta had a calibre of 7.65mm, although a few were made in 9 mm short, the cartridge that was to be the ammunition for the later modello 1934.

After 1919 other Beretta pistols appeared, all of them following the basic Beretta design. By the time the modello 1934 appeared the ‘classic’ appearance had been well established with the snub outline and the front of the cutaway receiver wrapped around the forward part of the barrel to carry the fixed foresight. The short pistol grip held only seven rounds and thus to ensure a better grip the characteristic ‘spur’ was carried over from a design introduced back in 1919. The operation used by the mechanisms was a conventional blowback without frills or anything unusual, but although the receiver was held open once the magazine was empty it moved forward again as soon as the magazine was removed for reloading (most pistols of this type keep the receiver slide open until the magazine has been replaced). The modello 1934 did have an exposed hammer which was not affected by the safety once applied, so although the trigger was locked when the safety was applied the hammer could be cocked either by hand or by accident, an unfortunate feature in an otherwise sound design.

In honor of Benito Mussolini’s assumption of power, fascist-era Model 1934s are not only stamped with their date of production in Arabic letters but also the year of Il Duce’s rule in Roman numerals.

It is light and compact, weighing just 1.25 pounds, and measures 6 inches in overall length. Its simple blowback mechanism functions smoothly, and its exposed hammer allows it to be lowered on a loaded chamber for safer carrying. A catch on the bottom of the grip secures the seven-round magazine that is equipped with a finger extension to aid steadier aiming. The Model 1934 is also chambered for a much more efficient cartridge than most earlier Italian service pistols. Known in Italy as the caliber 9mm corto (short) cartridge, the Model 1934’s loading is also known as the 9mm Kurz in Germany and the caliber .380 ACP in the United States. Although not as powerful as the 9mm Parabellum, it is ideal for such a compact weapon and much more powerful in its ballistics than such cartridges as the popular caliber 7.65mm (.32 ACP). The Model 1934 was also used by Romanian and Finnish troops during World War II. Actual usage of the Model 1934 by Italian troops during World War II did little to prove its value as a combat weapon.

The modello 1934 was almost always produced to an excellent standard of manufacture and finish, and the type became a sought-after trophy of war. Virtually the entire production run was taken for use by the Italian army, but there was a modello 1935 in 7.65 mm which was issued to the Italian air force and navy. Apart from its calibre this variant was identical to the modello 1934, The Germans used the type as the Pistole P671(i). Despite its overall success the modello 1934 was technically underpowered, but it is still one of the most famous of all pistols used during World War II.


Beretta modello 1934

Caliber: 9mm Corto (.380 ACP)

Operation: blowback

Length overall: 152mm (6″)

Barrel length: 94mm (3.7″)

Weight empty: 680g (24 oz)

Magazine capacity: 7

Muzzle velocity: c. 251 mps (825 fps)


Papal Navy (Eighth-Nineteenth Centuries)

Capitana Pontificia (flagship of the Papal Navy which fought at the Battle of Lepanto, 1571)

An occasional force in the containment of Islam. From the early eighth through the late nineteenth centuries, what can be termed a papal navy existed sporadically. The chief purpose for such a navy was to halt the spread of Islam in the Levant and the Mediterranean. This navy was, more often than not, a collection of men and ships subsidized or authorized by the papacy but operated by other Christian powers to support papal policies.

For centuries the Muslim Saracens raided Christian territories and captured them to use as slaves. Popes and emperors were concerned about such depredations but usually did not maintain any type of standing force to stop them. There were a few exceptions. In 877, for example, Pope John VIII raised a fleet of galley-like ships, known as dromone, to defend Christian interests. This fleet, however, was short-lived and did not solve the problem.

After the popes preached the crusades, a renewed interest in building naval assets to further this effort emerged. In 1201 the Venetians agreed to transport the crusaders of the ill-fated Fourth Crusade to Egypt, whence they would then launch themselves on the road to Jerusalem. This crusade went awry, and the crusaders seized first a portion of the Adriatic coast and then Constantinople itself, but it illustrated how the pope might put naval resources to use.

In 1213 Pope Innocent III authorized King Philip II (Augustus) of France to cross the English Channel and invade England, after he had excommunicated King John and declared him deposed. This invasion did not occur, as John made amends and Innocent lifted the ban; but, again, this was an instance of papal intent to use a naval force.

With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, papal concern over possible Islamic domination increased. Pope Pius II (1458-1464) wanted to create an actual papal navy that might stem the Islamic tide. This navy did not materialize, but the pope believed a need existed and hoped to lead the charge against Islamic expansion into Europe.

One of Pius II’s successors, Pius V (1566-1572), brought the concept of a papal navy to its highest point. On his election in 1566, Pius V immediately provided funds to Philip II of Spain to strengthen the Spanish Navy in order that it might contain the Turkish fleet, which then threatened to dominate the Mediterranean. Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and the papacy had a common interest in suppressing the Islamic impulse, but France and England had their own strategic interests vis-a-vis the Spanish and Catholicism respectively. Thus, the leaders of the Christian world were divided. By 1570, however, Pius V had emerged as the dominant voice in anti-Turk negotiations, and he brought the Venetians into the fray. These negotiations resulted in first a temporary alliance with papal subsidies for the Venetian navy and then a formal alliance in early 1571, the Holy League.

Ultimately, the Holy League went to war against the Turks and defeated them in the greatest battle of galleys since Actium, the 7 October 1571 Battle of Lepanto. It was, unquestionably, the high point of the papal navy. The Christian fleet at the battle comprised 207 galleys, 6 galeasses, and 24 cargo vessels. All but a few were from the pope. The Ottoman fleet was made up of about 250 galleys. The Christians had upwards of 44,000 seamen and 28,000 soldiers from Venice, Spain, Genoa, Savoy, Malta, and the Papal States. Turkish seamen numbered some 50,000, along with some 25,000 soldiers. The casualty count, both in men and ships, is widely disputed, but the Turks lost over 200 galleys and 20,000 dead. The Christians put their own losses at 12 ships, with 7,500 dead and 15,000 wounded.

Although the Ottoman fleet was rebuilt, after the Battle of Lepanto the papal navy was essentially involved with curbing the activities of Muslim pirates who haunted the waters of the Mediterranean until 1830. A papal navy, either subsidized or authorized, managed to survive until the late nineteenth century when Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) dismantled it as a useless vestige of the times when the popes competed stridently for temporal power.

References Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Vols. 1, 2. Trans. Sian Reynolds. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Guglielmotti, P. Alberto. Marcantonio Colonna alla battaglia di Lepanto. Firenze: Felice Le Monnier, 1862. —. Storia della Marina Pontificia. Vols. 1-10. Rome: Tipografia Vaticana, 1886-1893.

Papal Naval Flag

Foreign Policy of Henry IV

Henry IV and the war of Savoy

In exchange for retaining Saluzzo (dotted area, lower center), Savoy was compelled to cede most of its territories on the far side of the Rhône (striped area, upper left)

The peace of Vervins was not very well observed on the part of France. The ruling idea which guided the foreign policy of Henry IV was to curb the power of the House of Austria: a plan incompatible with the letter of the treaty. In pursuance of this policy Henry became the supporter of Protestantism; not, perhaps, from any lingering affection for his ancient faith—his indifference in such matters has been already seen—but because the Protestants were the natural enemies of the Austrian House. Hence he was determined to support the independence of Holland. He annually paid the Dutch large sums of money; he connived at the recruiting for them in France; and in spite of a royal prohibition, granted at the instance of the Spanish ambassador in 1599, whole regiments passed into the service of the United Provinces. In aid of these plans Henry fortified himself with alliances. He courted the Protestant Princes of Germany, and incited them to make a diversion in favour of the Dutch; he cultivated the friendship of Venice, reconciled himself with the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and attached the House of Lorraine to his interests by giving his sister, Catharine, in marriage to the Duke of Bar (January 31st, 1599); who, formerly, when Marquis of Pont-à-Mousson, had been his rival for the French Crown, and who in 1608 succeeded his father as Duke of Lorraine. The Porte was propitiated by Savary de Brèves, an able diplomatist; and the vanity of France was gratified by obtaining the protectorate of the Christians in the East. The Pope was gained through his temporal interests as an Italian Prince. Henry had promised, on his absolution, to publish in France the decrees of Trent; and, as he had refrained from doing so out of consideration for the Huguenots, he had, by way of compensation, offered to support Clement VIII in his design of uniting Ferrara to the immediate dominions of the Church; although the House of Este had often been the faithful ally of France. The direct line of the reigning branch of that family becoming extinct on the death of Duke Alfonso II, Clement VIII seized the duchy; and Caesard’Este, first cousin and heir of Alfonso, obtained only the Imperial fiefs of Modena and Reggio (1597). The connivance of Henry gratified the Pope and caused him to overlook the Edict of Nantes.

The friendship of the Pope was also necessary to Henry for his private affairs, as he was meditating a divorce from his wife, Margaret of Valois, from whom he had long been estranged, and who had borne him no children. Flaws were discovered in Gregory XIII’s dispensation for kinship; and as Margaret herself, in consideration of a large pension from the King, agreed to the suit (July, 1599), a divorce was easily obtained. The choice of her successor was more difficult. Mary de’ Medici, the offspring of Francis, Grand-Duke of Tuscany, by a daughter of the Emperor, Ferdinand I, was proposed, and supported by Sully who opposed all idea of a marriage with Gabrielle, now Duchess of Beaufort. The difficulty was solved by the sudden death of Gabrielle, April 10th, 1599. Henry, who was absent from Paris, though he felt and displayed an unfeigned sorrow for the death of his mistress, harbored no suspicions, and the negotiations for the Florentine marriage went on. Mary de’ Medici, however, was nearly supplanted by another rival. Before the end of the summer, Henry had been captivated by a new mistress, Mademoiselle d’Entragues, whom he created Marquise de Verneuil. The Papal commissaries had, in December, 1599, pronounced his marriage with Margaret null; and on the 25th of April following the King signed his marriage contract with the Tuscan Princess, the second descendant of the Florentine bankers, who was destined to give heirs to the Crown of France.

A domestic rebellion, fomented by Spain and Savoy, diverted awhile the attention of Henry from his plans of foreign policy. Sully’s economy and love of order had excited much discontent among the powerful nobles of France; the materials of sedition were accumulated and ready to burst into a flame; and a point that had been left undecided in the treaty of Vervins afforded the means of applying the torch. By that treaty the question between France and Savoy respecting the Marquisate of Saluzzo had been referred to the decision of the Pope; but Clement VIII, unwilling to offend either party, had declined to interfere. In order, if possible, to settle this question, and also to engage Henry to support his pretensions to Geneva, Charles Emmanuel, who then reigned in Savoy, paid a visit to the French King at Fontainebleau; where, alarmed apparently at the idea of being seized and detained, he agreed to decide whether he would give up Bresse in exchange for Henry’s claims on Saluzzo. He had, however, no intention of surrendering either the one or the other; and he employed his visit to France in ingratiating himself with the French nobles, many of whom he gained by large gifts and still larger promises. It had been predicted by an astrologer that in the year 1600 there should be no King in France; and Charles Emmanuel made use of a prediction which, in that age, earned no slight weight, not only to rouse the ambition of the French nobility, but also, it is said, to stimulate a renewal of the odious enterprises against Henry’s life. A plan was formed to convert France into an elective monarchy, like the Empire, and to establish each great lord as an hereditary Prince in his government. It was thought that many towns as well as nobles might be drawn into the plot, nay, even that some princes of the blood might be induced to engage in it. Among the leading conspirators were the Dukes of Epernon and Bouillon (Turenne), and the Count of Auvergne, a natural son of Charles IX and uterine brother of the King’s mistress, Henriette d’Entragues. But Marshal Biron was the soul of the plot: whose chief motive was wounded pride, the source of so many rash actions in men of his egregious vanity. Biron pretended that the King owed to him the Crown, and complained of his ingratitude, although Henry had made him a Duke and Peer, as well as a Marshal of France and Governor of Burgundy. Henry had mortified him by remarking that the Birons had served him well, but that he had had a great deal of trouble with the drunkenness of the father and the freaks and pranks of the son.Biron’s complaints were so loud that the Court of Spain made him secret advances; while an intriguer named La Fin proposed to him, on the part of the Duke of Savoy, one of the Duke’s daughters in marriage, and held out the hope that Spain would guarantee to him the sovereignty of both Burgundies. After many pretexts and delays, Charles Emmanuel having refused to give up Bresse for Saluzzo, or Saluzzo for Bresse, Henry IV declared war against him in August, 1600, and promptly followed up the declaration by invading Savoy. Biron carefully concealed his designs, nor does the King appear to have been aware of them; for he gave the Marshal a command, who conquered for him the little county of Bresse, though still secretly corresponding with the Duke of Savoy. Henry’s refusal to give Biron the command of Bourg, the capital of Bresse, still further exasperated him.

One of the most interesting incidents of this little war is the care displayed by Henry for the safety of Geneva. The Duke of Savoy had long hankered after the possession of that city, and had erected, at the distance of two leagues from it, the fort of St. Catherine, which proved a great annoyance to the Genevese. The fort was captured by the royal forces; and the now aged Beza, at the head of a deputation of the citizens, went out to meet the King, who, in spite of the displeasure of the Papal Legate, gave him a friendly reception, presented him with a sum of money, and granted his request for the demolition of the fortress. This war presents little else of interest except its results, embodied in the treaty of peace signed January 17th, 1601. The rapidity of Henry’s conquests had quite dispirited Charles Emmanuel; and although Fuentes, the Spanish Governor of the Milanese, ardently desired the prolongation of the war, the Duke of Lerma, the all-powerful minister of Philip III, was against it; for the anxiety of the Spanish cabinet had been excited by the appearance of a Turkish fleet in the western waters of the Mediterranean, effected through the influence of the French ambassador at Constantinople. Under these circumstances negotiations were begun. In order to retain the Marquisate of Saluzzo, which would have given the French too firm a footing in Piedmont, the Duke was compelled to make large territorial concessions on the other side of the Alps. Bresse, Bugei, Valromei, the Pays de Gex, in short, all the country between the Saone, the Rhone, and the southern extremity of the Jura mountains, except the little principality of Dombes and its capital Trevoux, belonging to the Duke of Montpensier, were now ceded to the French in exchange for their claims of the territories of Saluzzo, Perosa, Pinerolo, and the Val di Stura. The Duke also ceded Chateaux-Dauphin, reserving a right of passage into Franche-Comte, for which he had to pay 100,000 crowns. This hasty peace ruined all Biron s hopes, and struck him with such alarm, that he came to Henry and confessed his treasonable plans. Henry not only pardoned him, but even employed him in embassies to England and Switzerland; but Biron was incorrigible. He soon afterwards renewed his intrigues with the French malcontent nobles, and being apprehended and condemned for high treason by the Parliament of Paris, was beheaded in the Court of the Bastille, July 29th, 1602. The execution of so powerful a nobleman created both at home and abroad a strong impression of the power of the French King.

While the war with Savoy was going on, Mary de’ Medici arrived in France, and Henry solemnized his marriage with her at Lyons, December 9th, 1600. The union was not destined to be a happy one. Mary was neither amiable nor attractive; she possessed but little of the grace or intellect of her family; and was withal ill-tempered, bigoted, obstinate, and jealous. On September 27th, 1601, the Dauphin, afterwards Louis XIII, was born.

Although the aims of Henry IV were as a rule noble and worthy of his character, the means which he employed to attain them will not always admit of the same praise. His excuse must be sought in the necessities and difficulties of his political situation. At home, where he was suspected both by Catholics and Huguenots, he was frequently obliged to resort to finesse, nor did he hesitate himself to acknowledge that his word was not always to be depended on. Abroad, where his policy led him to contend with both branches of the House of Austria, he was compelled, in that unequal struggle, to supply with artifice the deficiencies of force; and he did not scruple to assist underhand the malcontent vassals and subjects of the Emperor and the King of Spain. France is the land of political “ideas”, and Henry, or rather his Minister, Sully, had formed a magnificent scheme for the reconstruction of Europe. Against the plan of Charles V and Philip II, of a universal THEOCRATIC MONARCHY, Sully formed the antagonistic one of a CHRISTIAN REPUBLIC, in which, for the bigotry and intolerance supported by physical force, that formed the foundation of the Spanish scheme, were to be substituted a mutual toleration between Papists and Protestants and the suppression of all persecution. Foreign wars and domestic revolutions, as well as all religious disputes, were to be settled by European congresses, and a system of free trade was to prevail throughout Europe. This confederated Christian State was to consist of fifteen powers, or dominations, divided according to their constitutions into three different groups. The first group was to consist of States having an elective Sovereign, which would include the Papacy, the Empire, Venice, and the three elective Kingdoms of Hungary, Poland, and Bohemia. The second group would comprehend the hereditary Kingdoms of France, Spain, Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and the new Kingdom of Lombardy which was to be founded; while the Republics or federate States, as the Swiss League, the contemplated Belgian commonwealth, and the confederacy of the Italian States would form the third. The Tsar of Muscovy, or as Henry used to call him, the “Scythian Knès”, was at present to be excluded from the Christian Republic, as being an Asiatic rather than a European potentate, as well as on account of the savage and half barbarous nature of his subjects, and the doubtful character of their religious faith; though he might one day be admitted into this community of nations, when he should think proper himself to make the application.



Divisional commanders and officers of the Alpine Corps received little “official” news of the overall progress of the war while on the Don front. German liaison officers attached to the headquarters of each division provided their main sources of information. They could monitor radiograms transmitted from various German units operating in the region. It was only in this manner that commanders of the Alpine Corps heard about the encirclement of German troops in Stalingrad, the fall of the Romanian Third Army, the collapse and withdrawal of the Italian Eighth Army on their right flank, as well as assaults on the Hungarian Second Army to the north of their lines.

Lieutenant Egisto Corradi of the Julia Division wrote about the lack of verifiable news: “We didn’t know Stalingrad was now irreparably encircled and close to falling. We didn’t know 7,000 survivors out of 35,000 or more of the Italian Thirty-Fifth Corps remained encircled in Cerkovo, and Italian divisions, other than the Ravenna and Cosseria, were swept away from the front. We knew nothing about any of this even up to January 15….”

Between January 1 and 17, there was increased Soviet air surveillance and artillery fire across the Don, leading the alpini to believe it was only a matter of time before they would be attacked.

Across the Don on January 9, Revelli and his men could see Russian trucks and armored vehicles heading south with headlights turned on.

Toward January 10, alpini in the Vestone Battalion (Tridentina Division) began to hear ominous news. Two alpini in Sergeant Rigoni Stern’s unit who had gone to the kitchens to draw rations, overheard several mule drivers say the Russians had encircled the Alpine Corps. Reports based on radio scarpa (the rumor mill) created an uneasy atmosphere of anxiety and tension among the men. Several alpini even asked their sergeant to tell them how many kilometers existed between their strongholds and Italy. Rigoni Stern was also feeling uneasy. He had noticed Russians across the river were cutting brush and undergrowth at night to “widen their field of fire.” At night to the south, he could see flashes of light resembling “summer lightening.” At other times, he could hear what sounded like rolling wheels across the river. Nevertheless, rations and mail arrived on schedule.

One evening shortly after January 10, Lieutenant Moscioni, commander of the stronghold, told the sergeant he had received orders in the event the alpini should have to withdraw from the Don. There followed a careful examination of all automatic weapons. The alpini under his command turned their bunker into a virtual “workshop,” dismembering machine guns, mortars, and the heavy machine gun, cleaning them, and “retempering the springs to adapt them more to the cold.” Once tested, soldiers wrapped the “four machine guns, the heavy machine gun and the four 45mm mortars” in blankets and tent tarps to protect them from “the fine sand, which filtered into the dugout and penetrated everywhere.”

On the evening of January 15, units of the Tirano Battalion (Tridentina Division) received orders to “shunt all material to the rear, even weapons and stove emplacements, as if in a normal transfer. Mule drivers were sent back to their bases and [the battalion] went from one alarm to the next. Temperatures dropped below -40°.” To the south, the alpini could hear thunderous firing from the Edolo Battalion of the Tridentina. Revelli writes, “From company headquarters a strange order arrived; every alpino had to build a sled with whatever materials he could find.”

General Reverberi, commander of the Tridentina Division writes, “On January 15, 16, and 17, enemy forces amounting to approximately two regiments supported by numerous batteries of mortars of all caliber, and katyushas, commenced attacking the zone between the Tridentina and Vicenza Division [now deployed in the zone the Julia had previously occupied before moving south].”

Sergeant Rigoni Stern describes several attacks occurring on the lines held by the Vestone Battalion of the Tridentina. Before dawn, the Russians began firing mortars at various strongholds of the battalion. At dawn, the firing ceased as Russian soldiers began crossing the river to the left of Rigone Stern’s stronghold where there was a small island in the middle of the now frozen river. They took cover on the island and subsequently ran toward the riverbank, close to the positions the alpini held. Mortar shells from the alpini hit that section of the riverbank and it seemed that this was the end of their attempt to gain ground.

That same evening the Russians commenced firing with artillery and mortar rounds. This time, as they attacked they slid down in the snow to the riverbank and began running toward the alpini across the river shouting their battle cry, “Ura! Ura!” The alpini managed to fend them off, killing and wounding a good number. When a few Russians reached the barbed wire, the alpini threw the equivalent of a whole case of handgrenades; they failed to explode.

Shortly after, enemy forces began advancing once more. The alpini fired but Sergeant Rigoni Stern realized the Russians were gathering up their wounded. He shouted: “Don’t shoot! They’re gathering their wounded. Don’t shoot!” Surprised the alpini had ceased firing, the Russians quickly gathered their wounded, placed them on sleds and dragged them back to their side of the river. They even removed their dead, except for the ones who had reached the barbed wire.

Following this latest attack, Lieutenant Moscioni collapsed owing to days and nights of no sleep. He had been monitoring the situation intensely, constantly moving from one position to another, checking weapons and taking care of his men. Rigoni Stern writes, “He fell from sheer exhaustion, like a mule.” Moscioni told Rigoni Stern (once they returned to Italy), “It was like being turned into ice…I couldn’t feel my legs any more. I couldn’t feel anything. It was as if I’d only a head and very little of that. It was terrible.” Rigoni Stern took command of the stronghold until another lieutenant could arrive to replace Moscioni.

The Russians began to attack once more, but this time with a different twist. The alpini could hear someone behind the soldiers, “shouting encouragement in Russian” [probably a political commissar]. The sergeant could make out a few words: “country, Russia, Stalin, workers.” The alpini held their fire as the Russians moved out of the woods and slid down to the riverbank. The moment they reached the bottom Stern ordered the alpini to fire, pinning them down. The same Russian voice began shouting again as Russians at the edge of the woods began to retreat back to their trenches, but then a new wave of soldiers appeared and without hesitation began running across the frozen river. It was broad daylight and few survived the barrage of firing from the alpini. A few Russians lay on the snow playing dead, then rose and dashed toward alpini strongholds. They never succeeded. The alpini lost several men during that attack.

General Reverberi noted that the Russians attacked the Vestone Battalion seven times on January 15, leaving “800 dead enemy soldiers in front of their lines.”

Bianco Assunto, who served with the 1st Alpine Regiment of the Cuneense Division, recorded efforts on the part of General Battisti to press for an early withdrawal of the Alpine Corps from the Don. The source of Assunto’s information comes from a meeting held in Cuneo, Italy after the war was over, between Giuseppe Lamberti, commander of the Monte Cervino Battalion, and Major Lequio, at which time Lequio shared the following information with Lamberti.

“General Battisti sent me away from the front at the end of December, having realized following the defeat of the Italian infantry divisions south of the Kalitva River that the Alpine Corps risked encirclement.” Lequio also noted General Battisti tried to persuade General Nasci (commander of the Alpine Corps) and other superior officers to withdraw the Corps around January 10 (a week earlier than the actual date of the withdrawal, January 17) “because that way at least ninety percent [of the alpini] could be saved.”

Battisti could not convince General Nasci. In a last chance effort, Battisti sent Major Lequio to Italy by private plane in an attempt to persuade Prince Umberto of Piedmont to exert his influence on the military authorities in Rome. This effort failed as well.

It is interesting to note that General Battisti makes no mention of these events in his final report, written when he returned from Russia.

Although a withdrawal of Italian troops from the Don was probable by the end of December, and a certainty by January 1943, “nothing was done to organize it except for the pathetic suggestion to the troops to throw together [with whatever means] some little sleds to transport materiel.” Trucks and mules needed for transport of the troops should have transferred in a timely manner from rear zones to the front. Planning to distribute much needed supplies of warm clothing and provisions from warehouses stuffed with food and winter clothing did not occur. There was no careful preparation for a withdrawal route with planned stops and planned distributions from centers located in rear zones.

During this period of rapid escalation of fighting, historian Giorgio Rochat characterizes the leadership of generals Gariboldi and Nasci as “disastrous.” There was a complete “collapse of professionalism and attention to the troops that has never been sufficiently underlined, and it was the myth of the alpini that covered up the failure of their commands.”

On January 10, 1943, orders from central headquarters of German Army Group B arrived, directing the Alpine Corps and the Second Hungarian Army to “hold the lines on the Don up to the last man and the last bullet. No withdrawal from the front was permissible…without orders from the [German] command.” Although these orders were clearcut, General Battisti and his officers remained greatly concerned. Obviously enemy forces could attack the Alpine Corps frontally, but now a possible attack could come from the rear as well. On January 14, Battisti received a call from the headquarters of the Alpine Corps instructing him to prepare for a move of his entire division to another zone. Written orders to this effect would follow shortly.

Lieutenant Egisto Corradi recalled that the alpini didn’t realize the Hungarians deployed to the north of the Alpine Corps were withdrawing from their lines, even though German Army Group B had expressly forbidden a withdrawal. The Hungarians began withdrawing January 16, assuming sole responsibility for their action, following another negative response from the Germans stating that orders from Hitler were not up for discussion. In actuality, even before their official decision to withdraw occurred, various Hungarian formations had pulled back twenty-four hours earlier. Hungarian units directly deployed to the north of the Tridentina Division failed to notify head-quarters of the Tridentina of their intentions. “The confused and disorderly Hungarian withdrawal quickly became a chaotic rout. In the following days, Soviet mobile forces would attack the alpine divisions as they marched west by taking full advantage of the dissolution of the Hungarian sector.”


As early as December 20, 1942, the Soviets were mapping plans for their third offensive. The goal was to encircle and destroy the Hungarian, and remaining Italian and German forces on the Don front, and liberate the major railroad lines Liski-Valuiki, and Liski-Kantemirovka, in order to advance toward Kharkov and the Donets Basin.

Operation “Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh” consisted of two main and four secondary attacks. The two main attacks included strikes in the north against the Hungarian Second Army, followed by an advance south toward Alekseevka. From the south, strikes southwest of Kantemirovka, followed by a north and northwest advance toward Alekseevka, would achieve a pincer-like encirclement behind the lines of the Alpine Corps and the Hungarians. Of the four secondary attacks, two were to occur within the pincer formation while two were to take place outside of it.

On January 13/14, the Russians attacked the Hungarian Second Army, to the north of the Alpine Corps, penetrating deep into zones behind their lines. On January 14, the Russians attacked and destroyed units on the German lines held by the XXIV Panzer Corps in and around Mitrofanovka. Russian tanks quickly pushed through those lines, and that same evening they struck the headquarters of the German XXIV Panzer Corps where the commander, General Wendel, lost his life in the ensuing battle.

On January 15, masses of Soviet tanks continued to attack the weakened Hungarian positions in the north, as well as residual units of the XXIV Panzer Corps to the south and southwest of the Alpine Corps. They decimated the German 27th Panzer Division, and the 387th Infantry Division suffered significant losses. The Russians managed to open a large breach in the area held by the Germans and were now able to push north, toward Rossosh, site of the headquarters of the Alpine Corps. In Rossosh, alpini of the Monte Cervino Battalion engaged in a desperate battle against attacking Soviet armored units. All available military personnel in the area, including those with no combat experience, fought in this battle. Approximately twenty Russian tanks roamed the streets of Rossosh, demolishing warehouses, storehouses, and any truck in sight. Using any available means—mines, incendiary bottles, and hand grenades—alpini of the Monte Cervino and auxiliary personnel managed to put five tanks out of commission. German ground-attack aircraft took out another seven or eight. The remaining tanks moved into Italian rear guard zones. That same afternoon, the head-quarters of the Alpine Corps transferred from Rossosh to Podgornoje. Military hospitals were evacuated, as well as personnel from various auxiliary services. By noon of January 16, the Russians had occupied Rossosh.

On the morning of January 16, a Russian plane dropped leaflets near the lines where the Julia Division was still fighting. On one side of a very small leaflet of yellow paper (written in Italian) it read, “Italian soldiers! You are surrounded.” On the other side, written in Italian at the top and Russian at the bottom it read, “Lasciapassare” (pass or permit); “To all officers and soldiers who surrender we guarantee life, good treatment and your return to your homeland as soon as the war is over.” The leaflet was signed, “Command of the Red Army of the Don.”

A second leaflet, written in Italian on light blue paper with more text, guaranteed the same rights to prisoners as that written on the yellow paper. In addition, the text advised Italian soldiers to “agree with your trusted companions to act together so you can avoid surveillance by [your] officers and their spies.” It also advised soldiers to distance themselves from their commanders during a withdrawal, to fake a limp, and remain hidden in an izba until Russian soldiers arrived. “During a Russian attack, raise your hands. If there is a traitor in your midst, tie him up or better yet, kill him. Don’t in any case take off your uniform. The international directive requests this. For Russians the rules of war are sacred. Every pass is valid for as many who surrender. If you don’t have a pass, learn to shout these words loudly, ‘Russ sdaius!’ (‘I surrender’).”

On January 15, the ARMIR command requested permission from German Army Group B to withdraw the Alpine Corps along with the Hungarian Second Army, which was already withdrawing at that point. Hitler refused to allow the Alpine Corps to withdraw, but he permitted some troops of the German XXIV Panzer Corps to withdraw north of the Kalitva River.

General Karl Eibl, who had assumed command of the XXIV Panzer Corps, ordered all remaining German troops operating with the Julia Division to withdraw. Vicentini writes, “The design of the German command was evident, namely to forge ahead of the Julia Division in the by now inevitable withdrawal, leaving the Julia Division to form their rearguard, and at the same time having a clear road ahead in order to move rapidly ahead of the Italians. This action weakened the already gravely tested Julia, but most of all it left its flank, south of Krinichoje, completely exposed.”

As German troops to the south and southwest of the Julia Division began to withdraw, alpini of the Julia had to quickly extend and rearrange their defensive positions. ARMIR headquarters informed the command of German Army Group B that it was imperative to authorize the withdrawal of the Julia Division, as well as the other alpine divisions still positioned on the Don, so as to prevent their encirclement.

Despite tight German control of the Alpine Corps, General Nasci and his officers had actually mapped out a plan for a possible with-drawal. It included a specific itinerary the divisions were to follow once a retreat commenced. On January 15, General Battisti received written orders for the withdrawal of the Alpine Corps from the Don. These orders opened with the following statement: “Unfavorable events in other parts of the front constrain the Alpine Corps to withdraw in order to prevent encirclement.” The three Alpine divisions (including the Vicenza Division, incorporated into the Alpine Corps since November 20), the German XXIV Panzer Corps, and all troops and service units posted in the Rossosh zone were to move toward the “alignment Valuiki–Rovenki as quickly and efficiently as possible.” Furthermore, the orders stated that once the troops so deployed, a new defensive line would be drawn, fortified by German troops arriving in that zone.

The orders included specific routes for the divisions to follow. However, as General Battisti notes, operational orders for the withdrawal were developed during the night of January 15, before columns of Russian tanks and troops had reached and occupied Rossosh, and two days before the Russians captured the strongpoints of the proposed line of defense: Valuiki–Rovenki.

In actuality, the overall situation on the ground had changed radically even before the withdrawal was to begin. In order to realize necessary deviations and to change course from the original plans for the withdrawal, there should have been close and constant communication between the Alpine divisions and their corps headquarters, as well as communication with the superior commands, namely the Germans. In fact, in the case of the Cuneense Division, communication between that division and the headquarters of the Alpine Corps ceased on the morning of January 15 (on January 20 a very brief radio connection was reestablished for only a short period).

Already on January 15, General Nasci had ordered alpine units on the front lines to transport heavy equipment from supply depots and camp hospitals to Popovka and Podgornoje. Soldiers in charge of horses and mules located behind the lines received orders to move the animals to the front in order to transport these heavy loads. Some units failed to reach the front with quadrupeds because of Russian attacks. Consequently many alpine units, especially those of the 2nd Regiment of the Cuneense Division, began their withdrawal with approximately twenty mules per company. This of course had grave consequences for the mobility and survival of men in those units.

The following order, received by General Nasci at 0600 on January 17, clearly demonstrates the control the Germans had over the destiny of the Alpine Corps: “TO LEAVE THE DON LINE WITHOUT ORDERS FROM ARMY [Group B] IS ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN. I WILL MAKE YOU PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE TO EXECUTE THIS [ORDER].”

Although enemy forces had encircled the Alpine Corps, General Nasci reported that the Corps was still in good shape, even though it remained under strict control by the Germans.

At 1000 of the same day, Nasci received orders from ARMIR head-quarters to withdraw from the Don, and to maintain close contact with the Hungarian Second Army deployed to the north. The General was also informed that Russian tanks had reached Postoialyj, which confirmed the fact that the Corps was completely encircled. In addition, German Army Group B placed the XXIV Panzer Corps under Nasci’s command. It was now equipped with only four tanks, two self-pro-pelled guns, and scant artillery including a battery of rocket launchers. Nasci noted that the 385th and 387th divisions of the Panzer Corps were “reduced to shreds,” and their fighting ability could be considered “negligible.”

At 1100, General Nasci received another message from the head quarters of the ARMIR, authorizing the withdrawal of the Alpine Corps from the Don. The message ended with the following: “God be with you.” The message also stated that the withdrawing Alpine Corps should maintain close contact with the Hungarian Second Army. Of course, that was impossible. By now, Russian forces had overrun the Hungarians and already there were reports of disorganized units of Hungarians near Opyt, northwest of Podgornoje. That same day, General Nasci received news that the Russians had occupied Pos-toialyj and Karpenkovo. The encirclement of the Alpine Corps was now complete.

Operation Substance

The operation was successfully carried out is due in no small measure to the behaviour of the merchant ships in the convoy. I had complete confidence that orders given to them by me would be understood and promptly carried out. Their steadfast and resolute behaviour during air and E-Boat attacks was most impressive and encouraging to us all. Particular credit is due to S.S. MELBOURNE STAR’S Master Capt. D.R MacFarlane, Commodore of the convoy, who set a high standard and never failed to appreciate directly what he should do. – Vice Admiral JF Somerville Flag Officer Commanding ‘Operation Substance’

Vital convoys kept isolated places like Gibraltar and Malta alive. In the Mediterranean, there were increasing clashes at points where the Axis and the Allied convoy routes crossed. In February 1941, Rommel’s Afrika Korps had arrived in Libya to stiffen the Italian backbone, which meant the Italian and German supply lines now ran north–south between Italy and North Africa, protected by the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica Italiana. The British Empire supply lines ran east–west through the Mediterranean, a thousand miles from Gibraltar to Malta and eight hundred miles from Malta to Egypt.

When the Germans finally captured Crete they stationed swarms of aircraft at Maleme and Heraklion, which imperilled all convoys from Alexandria to Malta. This meant more provisions for the beleaguered island would now have to come from the west, via Gibraltar. But after decryption of German air force signals at Bletchley Park revealed that many Luftwaffe squadrons had been withdrawn from Sardinia, Sicily and southern Italy in order to support the invasion of Russia, a window of opportunity opened, and in July 1941 a major British convoy was sent to reinforce and resupply Malta.

The aim of Operation Substance was to ship two infantry battalions, two anti-aircraft units and a battery of thirty field guns, plus masses of ammunition, fuel, food, stores and spares to depleted Malta. If ever the Germans tried an airborne invasion of Malta like the one that took Crete, these forces would stop it.

The heavily laden store ships City of Pretoria, Deucalion, Durham, Melbourne Star, Port Chalmers and Sydney Star, together with two troopships, Leinster and Louis Pasteur, made up the ‘Winston Special’ convoy WSC9, escorted from the UK to Gibraltar by Force X from the Home Fleet. Force X comprised the battleship HMS Nelson, the cruisers Edinburgh, Manchester and Arethusa, eight destroyers and the fast mine-layer HMS Manxman. From Gibraltar onwards, the convoy became GM1 (1st convoy Gibraltar–Malta) with additional protection from Force H: the battle cruiser HMS Renown, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, carrying twenty-four Fulmars and thirty Swordfish, the light cruiser Hermione and eight destroyers. Submarines, six from Gibraltar, two from Malta, were stationed to intercept any moves by the Italian fleet. In addition, Cunningham’s ships were staging an elaborate diversion in the eastern Mediterranean. Three days into GM1’s journey from Gibraltar to Malta, convoy MG1 (1st from Malta to Gibraltar) would set off in the opposite direction, westward, ‘bringing back the empties’, the fleet supply ship Breconshire, a destroyer and six unloaded cargo ships.

Among the hundreds of soldiers being transported in Operation Substance to join the Central Infantry Brigade on Malta was my own maternal grandfather. In the spring of 1941, at Duns in Scotland, Lieutenant Colonel G. F. Page DSO had taken command of the thirty-two officers and 742 other ranks of 11th Battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers, an enthusiastic but very new battalion raised in Rochdale in October 1940. They arrived in Gibraltar from Gourock aboard HM Troopship Louis Pasteur, a new French liner which had carried two hundred tons of gold from Brest to Nova Scotia and then been commandeered by the British government to carry troops.

The soldiers had not been informed they were to transship in Gibraltar and most of their kit was locked behind watertight doors that could not be opened en voyage. They saw nothing of the Rock, but did set foot on its detached mole. In three and a half hours, using two lighters, the battalion moved itself and all its baggage, plus twenty tons of ammunition, along the mole and into the cruiser HMS Edinburgh. ‘Some 5 tons of phosphorus bombs for mortars were carried as deck cargo and did not conduce to the safety of the ship,’ Lieutenant Colonel Page wrote in his report. ‘Once aboard, I cannot speak too highly of the arrangements made for the accommodation of the troops. I doubt if another man could have been carried but every man had somewhere to sleep and meals were regular and ample.’

Convoy GM1 sailed on 20 July 1941, at night, in fog. The smaller troopship Leinster, carrying a thousand men including RAF personnel from Gibraltar, ran aground in the strait and took no further part in Operation Substance. Spain had the right to intern all the uniformed passengers stranded on its territory, but chose to turn a blind eye to the Leinster. British destroyers took the shipwrecked soldiers and airmen back to the Rock after their bizarrely brief excursion. At the hospital, the stranded medic Reg Gill met a monocled British RAMC colonel who was wearing his German medal given by Hitler for helping the Deutschland wounded in 1937 and who was now only too eager to demonstrate an enormous fly-trap he had invented.

Substance proceeded eastward. On board the fast cruiser HMS Edinburgh, flying the flag of Rear Admiral Neville Syfret, 18th Cruiser Squadron, the captain’s day cabin became the Lancashire Fusiliers’ orderly room and the battalion was organised into working parties to keep the men busy on their way to Malta. Soldiers and sailors would fight side by side. The keenest-eyed soldiers were assigned to the pom-pom guns and the bridge as extra lookouts for enemy aircraft and submarines. From first light to last light, under the direction of the ship’s gunnery officer, the Lancashire Fusiliers deployed sixteen Bren light machine guns, each with a team of six (two men per gun and one NCO per team on duty at a time, working two hours on and four hours off), to supplement Edinburgh’s already formidable anti-aircraft defences: a dozen four-inch AA guns, two eight-barrelled two-pounder pom-poms and sixteen Vickers .50 machine guns. The Mortar Bomb Disposal Party was tasked with throwing overboard any phosphorus smoke bombs ignited by enemy action before they caused excessive damage. The Gun Crew Action Ration Party was to keep ship’s gun crews supplied with food and drink when they were unable to leave their posts during ‘action stations’. The Shell Supply Magazine Parties were to help naval personnel get the cordite charges and semi-armour-piercing shells to the turrets of the twelve six-inch guns, and to shift the 55 lb fixed rounds from the four-inch magazine.

All ranks detailed for ship duties were told they were under the command of the navy (or their own officers liaising with the navy) in order to achieve their objective of disembarking at Malta. Admiral Somerville had sent out a mission statement to all ships, ending: ‘THE CONVOY MUST GO THROUGH.’ As for the German and Italian enemy, the Lancashire Fusiliers were told there were ‘the normal routine hazards of submarines and mines’ but ‘attacks by aircraft from high level and torpedo- or dive-bombing are almost certain’. Everyone was ordered to keep their field dressing in the front pocket of their KD (khaki drill) shorts and carry a gas mask. Those above deck during action were to wear steel helmets.

Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Page was a regular soldier with a neat moustache, a good regimental officer now in charge of a green if keen battalion. He was a firm disciplinarian, not unkind to young soldiers, but they did have to ‘keep steady’ and follow orders. There were few bad soldiers, he thought, just poor officers. His own mode was studied imperturbability; his 1916 DSO in Macedonia was for calmness and good leadership under heavy fire. He was an impatient man, so that required some will-power. Now he took up his position on the bridge with the captain.

At 9.20 a.m. on the third day, Wednesday 23 July, hands went to action stations. The convoy was in the gap between Sardinia and Algeria when the Regia Aeronautica Italiana flying from Cagliari pounced. Firing began at 9.45. The attack was well synchronised: while the nine CANT Z.1007 high-level bombers drew eyes upwards, the seven Savoia-Marchetti SM.79s flew in low, carrying deadly torpedoes. The Force H destroyer HMS Fearless was hit by one such ‘kipper’ or torpedo at 9.54 and caught fire. Thirty-five men were killed and the rest of the crew abandoned ship, rescued by the Dakar veteran HMS Forester, which then sank the burning Fearless by gunfire.

The cruiser HMS Manchester managed to dodge three torpedoes, but in avoiding a collision with Port Chalmers was caught port aft by another 45 cm torpedo, whose explosion killed and wounded another forty-four men. The damaged cruiser, carrying 750 soldiers from the 8th Battalion, King’s Own Royal Regiment, could still make nine knots, but because that would slow everyone else down, Admiral Somerville ordered Manchester with its soldiers back to Gibraltar, escorted by the destroyer HMS Avon Vale. Convoys could not afford to dawdle. Manchester herself had signalled the day before: ‘S stands for Straggler and Sunk.’

Meanwhile, battle raged in the air. The barrage of anti-aircraft gunfire from the ships brought down three of the SM.79 Sparviero torpedo bombers, and the Fairey Fulmars from the Ark Royal shot down two more, plus a brace of high-level bombers, for a loss of three of their own. When a soldier from the Cheshire Regiment aimed his rifle purposefully at some downed Italian fliers in their rubber dinghy, his officer tapped him on the shoulder: ‘We don’t do that in the British army.’

Now the convoy was reaching an even more dangerous stretch, the Sicilian Narrows between Cape Bon in Tunisia and Sicily, the passage known to the sailors as ‘Bomb Alley’. At around 5.30 p.m., the big ships of Force H turned back to cover the damaged Manchester, leaving Hermione and two destroyers with the convoy, as well as the Ark’s fighters, flying top cover until Beaufighters from Malta could take over. Rear Admiral Syfret in Edinburgh was now in command of Substance. They endured two more bombing attacks on the 23rd, at 7.00 and 7.45 p.m. People under hatches on Edinburgh knew what was happening because the ship’s Air Defence Officer on the bridge, Lieutenant Commander Talbot, ‘piped’ information over the ship’s broadcasting system. ‘Torpedo bomber attacking starboard’ would be followed by the din of the guns: the booms of the four-inch, the bang-bang-bang-bang of the pom-poms, the hammering chatter of the machine guns, the squirts of Bren, then ‘Cease firing’ and ‘Friendly fighter coming down portside’, followed by ‘Lancashire Fusiliers four-inch guns emergency supply party fall in on flight deck’ and so on. The running commentary ‘was much appreciated and greatly assisted morale’, Lieutenant Colonel Page wrote. The convoy was running in two lines, each led by a destroyer with its minesweeping paravanes out and streaming. Firedrake, the destroyer heading the port column, was holed in the second bombing attack and had to be towed back to Gibraltar by Eridge.

Admiral Syfret took the convoy northeast to avoid mines and an air attack at dusk. Enemy aircraft were searching for them along the original line of advance and around midnight the sailors on watch could see parachute flares being dropped by planes twenty miles to the south. Syfret ordered the convoy to change course south again to pass close by the island of Pantellaria.

In the darkest hour of the night, just before 3 a.m. on Thursday 24 July, there was a roar of engines over the sea and the convoy was attacked three times by Regia Marina speedboats. The Italian torpedo-armed motor boat – motoscafo armato silurante or MAS – carried two torpedoes and a machine gun and was the fastest thing afloat, capable of forty-five knots. The British warships, rapidly at action stations, turned on their searchlights and soon red tracer was stitching the blackness.

When Edinburgh illuminated a fast Italian craft eight hundred yards away, a splashing broadside from the four-inchers, the multiple pom-poms and the machine guns seemed to blow the thing to pieces. However, another Italian speedboat – MAS 532 – got through and put a torpedo into the largest cargo ship, the eleven-thousand-ton MV Sydney Star. Soon the Sydney Star had thirty foot of water in the hold and although Captain T. S. Horn stayed on board to nurse the ship home, HM Australian Ship Nestor came alongside to take off all the soldiers from a light anti-aircraft unit.

This operation took fifty minutes, in the darkness, three miles off enemy-held Pantellaria. Hermione stood by to help with cover and, sure enough, as the sun came up, a flight of Ju 87 Stukas attacked the three ships from the east. It was the first of four air attacks that day. The action log of the Fusiliers on HMS Edinburgh recorded:

0734 Enemy aircraft approaching. Range 10 miles.

0740 Firing commenced.

0743 Friendly Beaufighters passing down port side.

0747 ‘This is the Captain speaking. We are now on the last part of our journey. Have opened up speed to 26 knots. Making straight for Malta. Expect to arrive 1130 hrs.’

At 11.30 a.m. on 24 July, the first three ships of convoy GM1, HMS Arethusa, Edinburgh and Manxman, steamed into the Grand Harbour of Valletta, four hours ahead of the transports. The old walls were black with Maltese people: what looked like the whole populace had turned out to welcome them in, and the Royal Navy intended to make a show of it. The ship’s company and the Lancashire Fusiliers were all standing to attention, lining the port and starboard guardrails of HMS Edinburgh, while on the turret of the aft six-inch gun the band of the Royal Marines was pumping out ‘The British Grenadiers’ and other patriotic marches. Lieutenant Colin Kitching RNVR, one of the Edinburgh boarding party who had ‘pinched’ Enigma papers off the German weather-ship München, was on deck when they arrived in Valletta with all the people cheering them in. ‘The emotion of the moment was so great that I found tears were rolling down my cheeks, a reaction which seemed to apply to everyone around me.’

An order went out over the ship’s tannoy: ‘Lancashire Fusiliers. Adjutant calling. The Navy is returning the way we came. Clean the mess decks. Leave lifebelts on board. Don’t forget your haversack rations.’

At 12.25 p.m., the Lancashire Fusiliers started disembarking on Malta, where they would stay for the next three lean years. Personnel and baggage were all unloaded in two hours, and at 3.30 HMS Edinburgh departed, heading back to Gibraltar.


Their troubles were not over. The arrival of the Substance convoy in Malta prompted the Italian navy to order its small craft and submarine assault unit, Decima Flottiglia MAS, the 10th Light Flotilla, to attack Valletta Harbour.

The British made many jokes about ‘the Eyeties’, ‘the Macaronis’, ‘the Ice-creamers’, like the one about more reverse than forward gears on their tanks, but no one could doubt the bravery of the Italian sailors who made this assault. There was a narrow channel under the three-pillared steel bridge between the Sant’Elmo mole and the Maltese mainland that in peacetime used to allow small vessels into the main harbour. A wartime anti-torpedo net of interlocking steel rings now blocked this gap, but the Italians planned to blow the net open with a two-man piloted torpedo, known as a maiale or ‘hog’, letting eight fast speedboats into the harbour to attack the cargo ships. Another two-man maiale would enter the western bay nearby, Marsamxett, the wintering harbour where British submarines were moored side by side, and attach its explosive charge to a hull to try and sink one or two of the ‘boats’.

The night of 25 July was moonless, and the sea calm. British radar spotted the raiders. All the guns and searchlights waited. Both the Italian torpedo ‘hogs’ got engine trouble and missed their deadline, so it was the explosive speedboats that set out to breach the steel net. The MT (Motoscafo Turismo) was essentially a torpedo embedded in the shell of a carvel-built, mahogany-hulled seacraft, powered by a six-cylinder, ninety-five-horsepower Alfa Romeo engine. The single operator sat at the back in a wooden seat that was ejected from the boat at the pull of a lever. He aimed his craft at the target and, about a hundred metres away, he was supposed to lock the steering and throw himself off. When the craft hit the target at speed, the hull would split open and the fuse (set for impact) would trigger the 330 kg explosive torpedo.

The two leading MT speedboats aimed for the net at around 4.45 a.m. Sub-lieutenant Roberto Frassetto threw himself off about fifty metres from the net but his boat was not going fast enough to split open and detonate. Sub-lieutenant Aristide Carabelli saw what had happened, set his own fuse to ‘impact’ and drove straight at the net at full speed, heroically, suicidally. His detonation set off Frassetto’s boat too and the double explosion not only shredded Carabelli but brought down the bridge overhead, completely blocking the way in.

None of the other MT speedboats would have made it anyway. Valletta’s searchlights blazed on and a two-minute hail of gunfire from six-pounders, Bofors guns and machine guns annihilated the Regia Marina flotilla. As the sun rose, British Hurricane fighter planes attacked their support ships. Only eleven Italian sailors made it back home. Twenty of their unit were killed, including some of the leading commanders, and eighteen others were captured. Two maiali, eight MT boats and three other vessels were lost. But Decima Flottiglia MAS would keep trying, and their next attack would be on Gibraltar.

Murat’s End

The Battle of Tolentino by Vincenzo Milizia. The Battle of Tolentino was fought from 2–3 May 1815 near Tolentino, Kingdom of Naples in what is now Marche, Italy: it was the decisive battle in the Neapolitan War, fought by the Napoleonic King of Naples Joachim Murat to keep the throne after the Congress of Vienna. The battle was similar to the Battle of Waterloo. Both occurred during the Hundred Days following Napoleon’s return from exile and resulted in a decisive victory for the Seventh Coalition, leading to the restoration of a Bourbon king.

News of Napoleon’s return had arrived at the Congress of Vienna on 7 March and initially the delegates treated it as a joke. But very soon it became clear that the joke was on them, and they agreed a joint statement proclaiming Napoleon an ‘Outlaw’ and declaring war on him personally. The entire continent was now committed to defeat and destroy Napoleon and his army once and for all. However, mobilising troops that had already marched home, and even disbanded in many cases, was not going to be an easy task. Even so, Spain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Britain and a host of smaller countries signed the agreement to supply troops to this renewed pan-European effort to oust Napoleon.

The Ottoman troops returning to reclaim their hold on Serbia sparked a short but bloody revolt in April 1815, which led to negotiations and the establishment of an informal self-governance under the nominal control of the Sultan.

The war may have ended in April 1814, but Marshal Joachim Murat, as King of Naples, had felt so insecure on his throne, despite Austrian protestations of support, that he continued to build up his forces during the ensuing peace, whilst all other countries were actively dismantling their wartime establishments. Relations with Sicily remained frosty, with the flames of insurrection still persisting in the Calabrian mountains, reputedly fanned by recently disbanded Neapolitan troops, still retaining their arms, being transported from Sicily to the mainland by Ferdinand. Murat also continued to liaise with other factions throughout the peninsula that were seeking a united Italy, in the belief that Napoleon, unable to remain quietly on Elba for long, would seek to head a drive for Italian unification. Despite his recent treason, Murat remained hopeful that Napoleon would forgive him and utilise his forces to achieve their joint goal.

When news of Napoleon’s escape did arrive, Murat was quick to assure the British government that he still wanted peace, but when he learned that the Emperor was back in control in Paris, he immediately offered him his services. He dreamt of marching northwards with an army of 40,000 men, gathering support as he went, and driving the Austrians back over the Alps before establishing a unified ‘Kingdom of Italy’. Napoleon was initially hopeful of persuading the allies to allow him to reign peacefully in France, and the proposal from Murat could not have arrived at a more delicate moment. Even before Napoleon had a chance to reply, Murat, always impulsive, launched his attack, declaring war on Austria on 15 March. This unwelcome news shattered any hope Napoleon had of gaining a peaceful settlement, even if it had been a genuine desire on his part. It inevitably appeared to the allies that Murat was working in coordination with Napoleon, no matter how loud his protestations to the contrary.

Leaving Naples in the hands of his wife Caroline, with 10,000 troops to provide garrisons for his strongholds, Murat marched north with an army of 40,000 men and fifty-six guns. His inexperienced and poorly trained army left Naples on 17 March in two columns, one of which was to march into Tuscany via Rome, whilst the other advanced towards Bologna via Ancona. On the approach of Murat’s army, Pope Pius VII fled to safety in Genoa.

Murat’s troops met virtually no opposition to their advance and were warmly received by the populace, but worryingly, few actually sought to join his crusade. The small Austrian detachments retreated before the Neapolitans, and Murat was able to concentrate his whole force again at Bologna. The first part of his plan had now been achieved. At Bologna, however, Murat received disquieting news. General Macfarlane was reportedly preparing an Anglo-Sicilian force to land in Naples from Sicily, in his rear, and reports of the approach of two Austrian armies, one under General Neipperg with 16,000 troops and the other under General Bianchi with 30,000, caused him to hesitate.

An encounter with Bianchi’s force took place at Carpi, where the Neapolitan troops were forced out of the town, but then maintained a steady defence on the river line behind the town. Murat began to dream of victory, but the loss of the bridge at Occhobiello caused the complete collapse of his defences and a precipitate retreat followed, allowing the two Austrian armies to combine at Bologna.

Murat considered offering battle here but, receiving news that further Austrian reinforcements were at hand, and with the growing realisation that a popular rising in support of a unified Italy was not going to happen, he retreated into Naples. Fighting a string of rear-guard actions, some successful and others less so, the army retired to Tolentino, where battle was offered on 3 May and Murat’s army was completely destroyed. In the disorganised retreat that followed, many men deserted to return to their homes, and by the time Murat arrived at Capua he had barely 12,000 troops with him. Further news that the Anglo-Sicilian force was ready to cross the Straits confirmed that the situation was untenable and Murat handed command to General Carascosa and ordered his ministers to carry out negotiations.

Arriving at Naples on 18 May, Murat learnt that Bianchi had refused to negotiate and was determined to oust him from his throne, whilst a British squadron lay in Naples Bay ready to disembark troops. Caroline had already been forced to surrender all the shipping in the bay, including two Neapolitan ships of the line, to HMS Tremendous when the British ship threatened to bombard the city. Beset from all sides, Murat fled the following night, with as much money and jewellery as he and his small entourage could carry, and successfully crossed to Ischia on a fishing vessel; from here he secretly secured his passage on the Santa Caterina to Cannes, arriving there on 25 May. He remained there, ignored by Napoleon but still hoping to be recalled to his side, reading about the Emperor’s exploits in Belgium. Murat’s presence during the Waterloo campaign may well have been decisive, but Napoleon did not trust him. Naples was quickly defeated, but the fortress of Gaeta held out and was formally besieged by Austrian forces, eventually capitulating on 8 August.

But then came the disaster of Waterloo and the fall of Paris, and the ‘White Terror’ spread across the country,in which royalists sought out prominent Bonapartists; the lucky ones were arrested, but many others were massacred by the mob. Worried for his own safety, Murat moved to Toulon. Here, he arranged a safe passage on a Swedish merchant vessel and had the majority of his goods and treasure loaded on board, but for some unexplained reason he then failed to catch the vessel himself before it sailed, leaving him bereft. He was now living in terror of being discovered and wandered aimlessly along the coast, sleeping under the stars and living off stolen fruit, until he happened upon a group of veterans and ex-naval men who sought to help him. On the night of 22 June they sailed in a small coaster they had hired, but a storm caused them to transfer to a packet ship bound for Bastia. On arrival, the group quickly raised suspicions and the ex-navy men were arrested; Murat fled and was secretly housed by a retired Corsican officer. When his presence was betrayed, ten gendarmes were despatched to arrest him, but the villagers sounded the tocsin and defended him en masse, causing the gendarmes to retire in haste.

Despite the rush to arms, the conference at Vienna had continued to sit until it finally disbanded on 9 June, just before the fighting actually began. Before it broke up it reached agreement on many issues, a number of which impinged on the situation in the Mediterranean. Austria regained the Illyrian provinces and Ragusa, as well as Lombardy and Venetia in northern Italy; the Grand Duchies of Tuscany and Modena were reinstated with Hapsburg princes at their head; the Papal States, minus Avignon, were restored to the Pope; Piedmont, Nice and Savoy were reinstated to the King of Sardinia, and the former Republic of Genoa was also added to his kingdom; the Duchy of Parma was given to Napoleon’s ex-wife Marie Louise; and Ferdinand was reinstated as King of Naples and Sicily, Murat having lost his crown by siding with Napoleon once again.

The Battle of Waterloo, of course, occurred on 18 June. Defeated, Napoleon abdicated again on the 24th and Paris surrendered on 8 July. Napoleon was exiled again, this time to St Helena, where he eventually died six years later, on 5 May 1821.

There was little further fighting in the Mediterranean, as the renewed war was mercifully short, but there are a few incidents worthy of note. On 30 April, for example, the 74-gun Rivoli, now a British ship, encountered off Ischia the French frigate Melpomenne, which had so recently failed to prevent Napoleon escaping from Elba. She was sailing to Naples, where she was due to collect Madame Mere, Napoleon’s mother, and transport her to France. The outcome was not in doubt and the frigate was forced to surrender having exchanged broadsides with her much more powerful adversary for a mere quarter of an hour.

On 17 June the Pilot (18 guns) encountered the Legere (22 guns) off Cape Corse. The French ship was beaten with the loss of twenty-two killed and seventy-nine wounded (nearly half the crew), but escaped when the Pilot lost steering and could not manoeuvre to force her opponent to strike her colours.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Hudson Lowe was despatched from Belgium in May 1815, having apparently fallen out of favour with Wellington, to command the British troops at Genoa, whilst General Macfarlane was in Sicily. Lowe received instructions on 29 May that he was to refuse to combine his operations with either the Austrians or the Sardinians in any proposed invasion of France over the Alps. He was instead to assist in the liberation of key strategic ports in the south of France in the name of the King of France. He was to cooperate fully with Admiral Lord Exmouth and the British navy in seaborne operations with this aim.

Exmouth possessed a huge cache of arms with which to supply royalist insurgents in the south of France, and the British remained ready to act if the mobs in Toulon or Marseilles declared for the king, but at no time must they leave Genoa so poorly defended that it might be in danger of being lost.

Lowe finally arrived at Genoa on 16 June to find that Macfarlane’s troops would not return for some weeks yet and that he had sent advice to Lowe to proceed with caution. Lord Bathurst had, however, written to Lowe from London to insist that he acted independently of Macfarlane and the Austrians, which he did.

Lord Exmouth arrived with his squadron off Genoa having received news that Marseilles had declared for the king and that the rest of the south of France, with the notable exception of Toulon, was strongly royalist. Therefore, Lowe embarked 3,000 troops4 on board Exmouth’s squadron and sailed for Marseilles on 4 July. The convoy arrived safely at Marseilles on 14 July, having observed on their passage the royal standard flying everywhere except Antibes and Toulon. Lowe quickly assessed the situation and sent off requests for reinforcements, mules, tents and siege artillery to be sent. This would allow him to besiege the city of Toulon, which was garrisoned by some 5,000 troops under Marshal Brune. Unfortunately, few additional troops or mules could be spared and there was no siege artillery available to send, but an Austrian army under General Nugent with some 6,000 men had recently arrived at Genoa and was about to be shipped to Savona; this force could be diverted to support Lowe’s operations.

When Marshal Brune was summoned to surrender, he acted erratically. Initially he asked to be allowed to surrender on similar terms to the recent convention at Paris, and then he appeared to be ready to surrender on 24 July (on condition that he would pledge allegiance to the king but would be allowed to continue to fly the tricolour!), but three days later a cannon shot just missed a British frigate and negotiations were suspended. Lowe moved troops onto the hills surrounding Toulon and into the outskirts of the city. Finally, an agreement was signed, under the terms of which the royalist and British troops would be allowed to take control of the city and its fortresses. It was agreed that Brune could leave and go wherever he wished within France, and that those French regiments particularly loyal to Napoleon could march out of the city. On 1 August Lord Exmouth sailed his ships into the harbour and the city was handed over, but Lowe did not stay to witness the event, for that very day he received notification of his new job as custodian of the ex-Emperor Napoleon, whose destination was yet to be decided, and he was to return to London as soon as possible.

News of an insurrection on Corsica, and the arrival there of Murat, led to a detachment of British troops being ordered to the island under General Montresor to aid the rebels in ousting the French, but they did not actually go there as events had moved on5 and most of the rest of the troops were then sent back to Sicily or Gibraltar.

Left in peace on Corsica, Murat convinced himself that if he landed in Calabria, the country would rise immediately in his support. In mid-September he marched to Ajaccio, gathering some 400 recruits on the way, and seized the shipping in the port in preparation for his landing in Calabria. Just as he completed his preparations, however, a Mr Macirone arrived from Paris, offering Murat safe passage and an offer from Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister, for a safe residence within Austria for him and his family; as a sign of good faith, Macirone had brought with him the valuables that had so mysteriously sailed on the Swedish ship without Murat.

Murat mistakenly thought that Caroline had abandoned him and this bitter belief, although completely wrong, seems to have set him on the road to final destruction. He refused Macirone’s offer and thought only of his daring enterprise. On the night of 28 September his little expedition sailed on six small vessels, but storms and desertions caused three of the ships to leave him, halving his little force. Finding that his men had lost heart, he talked of making his way to Trieste and accepting Metternich’s offer; he then sailed his ship alone to Pizzo, where the captain assured him he could exchange it for a larger vessel, to make his way to Trieste.

Arriving at Pizzo, Murat changed his mind yet again and landed in full uniform with twenty-six of his men. Marching into the market square, his escort proclaimed him king. After a few moments of incredulity, the crowd turned nasty and threatened the Corsicans with their knives; one Corsican was killed and most of the others wounded in the ensuing scuffles. A woman struck Murat full in the face, declaring ‘You talk of liberty and you had four of my sons shot!’ The Corsicans retreated to the harbour only to find that their vessel had already fled and they were all captured, Murat bleeding from a cut on his forehead.

A detachment of troops arrived, led by General Nunziante, and Murat was questioned. He denied attempting to start an insurrection and stated that he intended to travel to Trieste under the protection of the Emperor of Austria. He was tried by court-martial on 13 October, but refused to enter a plea or make any defence. He was found guilty by a unanimous verdict and sentenced to be shot within the hour. He wrote a last letter to his wife and children, before being marched into the courtyard of the castle. He refused a blindfold and ended with the words ‘Soldiers, do your duty. Fire at the heart, but spare the face.’ He fell dead, pierced by six balls, one of which struck his right cheek, and was buried in a common grave in the churchyard of Pizzo, perhaps the final casualty of the war.


The Army of the Two Sicilies was the land forces of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, whose armed forces also included a navy. It was in existence from 1734 to 1861. It was also known as the Royal Army of His Majesty the King of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Reale esercito di Sua Maestà il Re del Regno delle Due Sicilie), the Bourbon Army (Esercito Borbonico) or the Neapolitan Army (Esercito Napoletano). Later many ex soldiers of this army joined Italian Royal Army.


Garibaldi was diverted from the escapade in Nice by news of a revolt in Sicily and pressure from a number of patriotic colleagues who begged him to lead an expedition in its support. In early April a Mazzinian plot in Palermo, which was quickly suppressed, had touched off a wider rebellion in the interior: bands of hostile and impoverished peasants spread across the island, killing or ejecting policemen and tax collectors and eliminating all form of local government. Many educated Sicilians approved of the rebellion against the Bourbons but were nervous of the other aims of an essentially social uprising. A few of them wanted independence and a few others hoped for union with the rest of Italy; Francesco Crispi, a lawyer and a future Italian prime minister, opted for union partly because he considered his fellow islanders incapable of ruling themselves. Most Sicilians were autonomists, however, who would have been content with a revival of the 1812 constitution and the distant sovereignty of the Bourbons. Their dislike of Naples was more vivid than their desire to join Italy.

Garibaldi was delighted by the tidings from Sicily and enthusiastic about the idea of an expedition there. He was an idealistic man with a simplistic ideology. Italy must be free and united, and its enemies – principally the pope, the Bourbons and the Austrians – must be overthrown. Although originally a republican, he now realized that the national cause was only likely to succeed under the leadership of Victor Emanuel.

The Sicilian uprising seemed to be faltering in mid-April, when Bourbon forces regained control of the coastal regions. Garibaldi was disheartened by the news and vacillated over his impending expedition. He had criticized Mazzini for irresponsible adventures and he did not wish to emulate Carlo Pisacane, the socialist patriot whose followers had been annihilated after landing three years earlier on the Neapolitan coast. Another problem was munitions. Garibaldi’s lieutenants had gone off to collect the money, arms and volunteers that were always available for any enterprise commanded by himself, but Azeglio, now the Governor of Milan, blocked a consignment of modern British rifles. ‘We could declare war on Naples,’ wrote the former prime minister, ‘but not have a diplomatic representative there and send rifles to the Sicilians.’14

At the end of the month, after further dispiriting news from Sicily, Garibaldi called the expedition off, but two days later, apparently convinced by Crispi that the rebellion was still active, decided to go ahead after all. As soon as one of his lieutenants had seized two steamships in the harbour of Genoa, he dressed himself up in the outfit he had picked up in South America – red shirt, pale poncho and silk handkerchief – and set off with his ‘Thousand’ volunteers across the Tyrrhenian Sea, a voyage that propelled him and them into legend and into comparisons with the ‘three hundred’ soldiers of Leonidas, the Spartan king who had held the pass of Thermopylae against the Persian army in 480 BC. It was indeed an heroic enterprise but it was also, incontrovertibly, illegal. Apart from stealing the two ships, Garibaldi was making an unprovoked attack on a recognized state with which his country, Piedmont-Sardinia, was not at war. History may have forgiven him for the deed, but it was an act of piracy all the same.

The Neapolitan king, Francesco II, did not at first take the expedition seriously. To him it seemed another adventure in the manner of Pisacane and the Bandiera brothers, a raid by a rabble of revolutionaries who would easily be defeated, despite the support of local rebels, by his troops on the island. Yet Garibaldi was a successful and charismatic guerrilla leader who enjoyed other advantages as well. King Ferdinand had died the previous year at Caserta after a reign of twenty-nine years, and his son, nicknamed Franceschiello, was young, timid and inexperienced. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had few allies except Austria, which was no longer in a position to help, and it had broken off diplomatic relations with Britain and France following their governments’ denunciations of Ferdinand’s ‘despotism’. The current Napoleon was unsympathetic to the Bourbons because he wanted their throne for his cousin Murat, and the British disliked them because Gladstone had convinced his colleagues that they presided over a uniquely awful regime. The hostility of France and Britain was fatal to the Bourbons because those nations had the means to decide whether ships might or might not reach their destinations in the Mediterranean. Had they wished to do so, their navies could have prevented Garibaldi from landing in Sicily in May and from crossing to Calabria in August.

While the expedition enjoyed the support of the small number of southern patriots, it also had backing, equivocal and confusing though this often was, from inside the Piedmontese establishment. Even those who opposed it did so halfheartedly. Cavour tried to dissuade the Thousand from embarking but he did not threaten force to deter them. Later he dispatched the Piedmontese navy to intercept the stolen ships, to prevent reinforcements from reaching Sicily and to delay Garibaldi’s crossing of the Straits of Messina. But the navy’s failure to achieve any of these objectives was not entirely the fault of the commander, the inept Count of Persano. Without some degree of official connivance, it is difficult to see how steamships could have been seized in Piedmont’s principal port, how the expedition could have managed to reach its destinations, and how so many soldiers ‘on leave’ from the Piedmontese army could have enlisted with the volunteers.

Garibaldi was lucky with his landing at Marsala on Sicily’s west coast on 11 May. The Bourbon garrison had just marched off to Trapani, and Neapolitan ships protecting the town had just sailed off to the south; later, when one of these vessels returned, it delayed firing at the red-shirted volunteers who were in the process of disembarking for fear of hitting two British ships in the harbour. The garibaldini had expected a welcome from islanders pining for liberation and were thus surprised to find a complete absence of enthusiasm for their arrival; also disconcerting was the invisibility of the revolt they had come to support. A few days later, however, the Thousand defeated a badly led Neapolitan force at Calatafimi and attracted a small number of Sicilians to their ranks. After the battle Garibaldi marched eastwards, capturing Palermo in June and Milazzo in July, landing on the Calabrian mainland in August and reaching Naples in September, four months after he had set forth from the Ligurian coast. In Palermo, where he established a government with himself as interim dictator and Crispi a secretary of state, he demonstrated his radical zeal by abolishing the grist tax and promising land reform for the peasants. Yet he could not go as far as he wished in this direction since he could not afford to alienate those landowners whose support was crucial for the achievement of political union with the north.

Although Garibaldi displayed courage and military skill in his campaign, the heroics were not quite on the scale that legend suggests. He did not defeat the 25,000 Neapolitan troops on the island with the thousand men he had arrived with at Marsala; over the summer, reinforcements from the north brought his own forces to more than 21,000. Nor was outrageous valour always required to overcome an enemy that, while well equipped, was poorly commanded and widely scattered. The young king was encumbered both with octogenarian ministers and with septuagenarian generals, one of whom had fought at Waterloo. These officers were not only old but also cowardly, incompetent and in some cases treacherous. At Calatafimi the Bourbon forces were positioned on a hilltop, inflicting casualties on the garibaldini attacking up the slope, when they were inexplicably ordered to retreat. One general foolishly suggested a truce which allowed Garibaldi to re-arm and take control of Palermo, another withdrew his troops unnecessarily from Catania to Messina, and officers from both the army and the navy deserted and took bribes. Some of these individuals were subsequently sent to the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, where the guilty ones were lightly demoted.

In Calabria Garibaldi found the opposition even feebler than in Sicily. Although the Neapolitan generals had 16,000 soldiers in the toe of Italy, they put up little resistance and sometimes submitted without firing a shot; one battalion surrendered to six wandering garibaldini who had got lost. Reggio was handed over with hardly a fight, and so was Cosenza. In Naples the minister for war announced in the mornings that he was departing for Calabria to defeat Garibaldi but then changed his mind in the afternoons because he considered his presence in the capital was essential to prevent disorder. Well did he and the other generals deserve a dismissive line in Richard Strauss’s opera, Der Rosenkavalier: when the Marschallin thinks she is about to be surprised with her lover, she decides to confront her husband, the field marshal: ‘Ich bin kein napolitanischer General: wo ich steh’ steh’ ich.’ (‘I am not a Neapolitan general: where I stand I stand.’)

On 7 September Garibaldi entered Naples by train, in advance of his army, where he was welcomed by Bourbon officials: the minister of police had already sycophantically told him that the city was waiting ‘with the greatest impatience … to greet the redeemer of Italy and to place in his hands the power and destiny of the state’. King Francesco had left the city the previous day, intending to carry on the war from Gaeta, the coastal fortress town near the border with the Papal States in the north. For all his limitations, he was a conscientious and honourable monarch who realized that a siege of Italy’s largest and most densely populated city would cause terrible carnage. But he did not shirk or run away like the dukes of central Italy had done a year before. He left garrisons in the castles of Naples and marched out, leaving nearly all his money and his personal possessions in his capital. He expected to return.

In the north of the kingdom the Bourbon army was transformed. Loyal regiments from Naples and other provinces of the mainland fought valiantly and were victorious in several skirmishes against the redshirts near Capua. Yet once again the generalship was defective, too slow, too cautious, too lacking in imagination. An urgent and vigorous counter-attack might have defeated the smaller enemy force; but when the advance eventually came, Garibaldi halted it on the River Volturno, a dogged defensive action in which he lost more men than his opponents. Even then the Neapolitans might have remained undefeated if the contest had been limited to themselves and the volunteers.

As soon as Cavour realized that Garibaldi would conquer Sicily, he was eager to annex the island to Piedmont. He had always detested home-grown revolutionaries more than he disliked Bourbons and Austrians, and the last thing he wanted was to see Sicily and possibly Naples in the hands of democrats and other radicals. Once the redshirts had reached Palermo, he therefore sent his representative, La Farina, who arrived in early June with posters proclaiming ‘We want annexation’. It was a strange appointment because La Farina was an insensitive individual and a well-known antagonist of both Garibaldi and Crispi. So much of his time in Sicily was spent intriguing and causing friction among members of the new government that after a month Garibaldi had him arrested and sent back north.

In Naples Cavour chose to employ a tactic similar to that which La Farina had failed with the previous year in the Po Valley: arranging a ‘spontaneous’ uprising in the city – and doing so before Garibaldi arrived. He duly sent Persano to the Bay of Naples with money in his pockets to bribe officials, and soldiers hidden on his ships ready to rush to the aid of the conspirators on land. In the city the Piedmontese ambassador duly gave the signal for revolt but, as so often with these Cavourian schemes, nothing happened. The Neapolitans were sensibly waiting to see which side was likely to win before committing themselves to the conflict.


Few Europeans mourned the fall of the Bourbons. Nor did later Neapolitans greatly regret the passing of a dynasty that had provided them with five kings over a century and a quarter – longer than the rule of either the Tudors or the Stuarts in England. Sentimental attachment was subdued perhaps by distant memories of earlier dynasties and by the presence of so many monuments of previous ages. The family had indeed produced no outstanding monarch but nor – despite what propaganda said – had it supplied a very bad one. In any case, was the general standard any lower than those of their cousins in Spain, the Savoia in Piedmont or the Hanoverians in Great Britain? The victors and their international supporters claimed that the Bourbon exit was an inevitable episode on the road to Italian unity, a necessary consequence of a war of liberation, the conflict having been simply a logical stage in the process of nation-building, a way of absorbing natural national territory – as Wessex had ingested Mercia or France had taken in Provence. Few people outside the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies saw it for what it ultimately was, a war of expansion conducted by one Italian state against another. The unusual feature of the contest was that it was a three-sided one, two sides playing the recognized parts of protagonist (the garibaldini) and antagonist (the Bourbons) while the third (the Piedmontese) took on a more subtle role, pretending to be a friend of the others but in reality being the enemy (and eventual conqueror) of both.

Moral and historical justifications for the conquest of Naples are perplexing. According to G. M. Trevelyan, the doyen of British eulogists of the Risorgimento, unification was necessary because of ‘the utter failure of the Neapolitans to maintain their own freedom when left to themselves in 1848’. Yet other people have failed in similar fashion without needing or deserving conquest. Another argument, still favoured by certain Neapolitan historians, is that the rapid collapse of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1860 proved that it was rotten and required elimination. Again, other regimes have collapsed before a sudden onslaught only to be resuscitated later by their allies. A distinguished historian of Naples, an elderly man whose great-grandparents were all Neapolitans, insists that his country could not have become a modern nation by itself after 1860, that it needed the partnership of Piedmont to give it the apparatus of a modern state. His argument does not convince. Piedmont was undoubtedly a richer and more liberal state than the Two Sicilies in 1860, but for most of the eighteenth century Naples had possessed a more enlightened regime than Turin, and only a generation before union it had had more industry and more progressive codes of law. The belief that Naples, unlike other countries in western Europe, was incapable of evolving by itself is simply illogical, an example of that southern inferiority complex which was engendered by the triumphalism of the Risorgimento and reinforced by much subsequent talk, northern and condescending, about ‘the southern question’ and ‘the problem of the mezzogiorno’.