Salian Monarchy, 1024–1137



Graham Turner


Henry II’s lack of children raised concern during his reign over the succession. The response was similar to that at the end of the Carolingian line: a meeting was organized at Kamba on the Rhine opposite Oppenheim in the summer of 1024 by the inner circle comprising Henry’s widow, Kunigunde, her brothers the duke of Bavaria and counts of Luxembourg and Mainz, and key bishops. The Salians were the only viable candidates. They were favoured by Kunigunde and her relations, and were backed by the Lorraine aristocracy, perhaps because of their shared roots in the Rhineland. There was currently no duke of Franconia since this post had been retained directly by the king since 939, while Swabia was held by a minor at that point. The Saxons, Italians and Slavs appear to have stayed away. Consequently, the proceedings became a discreet test of how much support the two Salian branches could muster. Conrad (II) the Elder, heading the junior Salian branch based at Speyer, emerged as the favourite allegedly because he already had a son. Conrad the Younger of the senior (older) Worms branch left Kamba with his supporters before the result was announced publicly, thereby preserving the appearance of unanimity. The Saxons continued to maintain their distance as in 1002, requiring Conrad II to secure their acceptance separately at Minden in December. Conrad encountered difficulties broadly similar to Henry I a century previously, but on a far wider scale because he succeeded to Italy as well as Germany, and inherited Henry II’s claims to Burgundy. Opposition in Swabia only ended when its duke, Ernst, was killed in 1030, and it took a further two years for Conrad to secure both Italy and Burgundy.


Conrad’s success confirmed the Empire as a hierarchy of three principal kingdoms headed by Germany, Italy and Burgundy. The challenge of governance was now even greater than under the Ottonians. The expanded size of the realm added to the difficulties of governing through personal presence. Meanwhile, the lordly hierarchy had lengthened and its members had become more numerous. There were now several pushy new families who had the power though not yet the status of dukes, achieved by acquiring several counties and placing relations in the imperial church. In addition to the Salians themselves, these included the Ekkehardiner at Meissen, the Luxembourgs, Ezzonids, Babenbergs and Welfs. There were also more numerous and distinct lesser nobles, plus the class of servile ministeriales emerging about 1020. These were not, as once thought, a royal creation to free the king from dependency on the great lords, but instead ministeriales were promoted by the imperial clergy. Bishops and abbots selected able men of unfree status and enfeoffed them with resources to enable them to serve as knights or administrators. The Salians also began employing ministeriales to administer royal domains and garrison the new castles built in the 1060s. The ministeriales gradually acquired other privileges, embraced an aristocratic ethos, and eventually converted their relationship based on servitude into one of more conventional vassalage to fuse with other lesser nobles as knights and barons by about 1300.

It would be wrong to interpret the ministeriales as the potential staff required to create a centralized monarchy. They were indeed used to oversee more intensive management of royal domains, notably in Saxony. However, the Salians were themselves a product of the same political culture as their lords. There was no blueprint for a centralized state to follow, nor evidence that anyone thought such a structure was superior. Instead, Conrad and his successors tried to improve established methods by making it harder for lords to refuse royal commands. Conrad’s well-known articulation of the Empire as ‘an enduring crown’ was one element in this, as was the increasing emphasis on royal authority, underpinned by a more elevated, sacral monarchical image.

Conrad remained in the late Ottonian mould of an emperor touring the Empire to meet lordly expectations of good kingship. One-fifth of his trips were to Saxony, where the local lords clearly resented the Salian accession and their displacement to the outer circle. This paid off, and Henry III’s accession in 1039 resembled a triumphal progress. Conrad also returned to the earlier policy of concentrating duchies in royal hands as they became vacant: Bavaria in 1027, Swabia in 1038 and Carinthia in 1039. All three passed along with Franconia to Henry III on his accession, but he broke past practice by giving them away, keeping only Bavaria.

Bavaria was held by a king or his son for 46 years between 1002 and 1125, with the other six individuals chosen from close allies, though four had to be deposed after brief periods by the king. Meanwhile, the Salians continued Henry II’s practice of promoting Bamberg, Eichstätt and other Bavarian bishops as counterweights. This seems to have worked well and Henry IV had little difficulty retaining their loyalty after 1075, unlike Saxony, where the policy of backing the archbishop of Bremen simply antagonized local lords further and contributed to the Saxon revolt in 1073.

This policy represented a fundamental shift from using ducal jurisdictions directly to a more indirect management of the ducal elite. It reduced friction by accepting the trend to hereditary possession, which was already clearly established in Lorraine and soon also Swabia. The king retained powers of confirmation, but local ‘elections’ were now far more like homage ceremonies where the new duke sought acceptance from the lesser lords. Ducal power rested on possession of significant allodial property, much of it often former royal domains, as well as clearer political jurisdiction over the lesser nobles.

However, the ducal elite faced harsher punishments if they abused their new autonomy. The Ottonians had operated what was, essentially, a ‘two strikes’ policy with only repeat offenders facing serious consequences, though even here exceptions were made, as in the case of Heinrich the Quarrelsome. This was no longer possible under the more elevated concept of monarchy cultivated by the Salians. Rebellion ceased to be a personal dispute over status and became an affront to divine order. It was harder to forgive wrongdoers who were now considered sinners. Using the Roman law concept of crimen laesae maiestatis, revived by Henry III, Salians no longer simply removed offenders from office, but also confiscated their allodial property.

The difficulties of the new course were already exposed in 1035 when Conrad II deposed Adalbero Eppensteiner as duke of Carinthia for pursuing a policy towards the Hungarians contrary to royal wishes. Conrad clearly intended an assembly of lords as a pliant court to endorse his verdict, but many of those present expressed disquiet, including the king’s son, Henry (III), who, as duke of Bavaria, had sworn friendship with Adalbero. Conrad secured consent by falling to the floor crying, a move that could easily have backfired and damaged his prestige. Although Henry III appears to have curried favour by reversing many of his father’s decisions, he continued the same methods, encountering even greater difficulties when he tried to enforce a new partition in Lorraine after 1044. He eventually achieved his goal, but alienated the duke’s relations in Tuscany.

Long the beneficiary of Ottonian patronage, the Tuscans had proved crucial in Conrad II’s victory over Italian opposition to his succession from 1024 to 1027. Tuscany’s defection to Pope Gregory VII after 1077 was a serious blow to the imperial position in Italy. The absence of other large jurisdictions necessitated a different approach to governing south of the Alps. The Salians spent only 22 of their 101 years of rule in Italy, and half of that was Henry IV’s largely unwilling presence during the Investiture wars. Their preferred method was to rely on the Italian bishops, both by appointing loyalists trained in the royal chapel, and by strengthening the episcopate by extending their control over their cathedral towns and surrounding area. This made some sense, given that demographic and economic growth began earlier in Italy than in Germany, eroding the old county structure and fuelling popular demands for greater civic autonomy. The Salians were not necessarily hostile to these developments, for instance extending their patronage by giving the post of royal judge to wealthy townsmen, some of whom subsequently rose to become counts or bishops. Conrad II also intervened to settle what became known as the Valvassores’ Revolt between 1035 and 1037. The valvassores were the subvassals of the ‘captains’ (capitanei) who held both urban property and church fiefs in the surrounding countryside. Conrad’s Constitutio de feudis of 28 May 1037 extended the benefits of hereditary possession of fiefs to the lesser lords, whilst continuing to assert the king as final judge of all disputes.

These policies were unintentionally conflictual, because they weakened episcopal authority over the valvassores and captains, notably in Milan, where a complex dispute developed over popular demands for autonomy and conflicting claims from the emperor and pope to intervene. When aligned with the difficulties encountered over Lorraine, this suggests the Salians were already encountering serious structural problems ahead of Henry IV’s minority following his father’s death in 1056.

The Saxon and Investiture Wars, 1073–1122

Discontent amongst east Saxon lords coincided with the first stages of what would become the Investiture Dispute around 1073. Neither of these problems was immediately life-threatening for the Salian monarchy. Henry IV continued to enjoy considerable support amongst the German and Italian episcopates, as well as many lay lords. However, his inability to find quick solutions to these problems fuelled underlying discontent at Salian methods and gave credence to charges of misrule. A more exalted style of monarchy inhibited the cultivation of ‘friends’ and made it difficult to compromise without losing face, and Henry rebuffed several attempts by lay and secular lords to broker settlements. Royal prestige was now defined by power and victory, not consensus and clemency. Unfortunately, open defiance, as in Saxony, left the king no choice but to employ force. The Salians were thus in the same bind in Germany as the Ottonians had been in earlier disputes with the papacy: violent methods conflicted with most people’s ideal of good kingship. The German lords provided Henry with an opportunity to restore politics to the earlier consensual course by summoning him to their assembly at Trebur in October 1076. Yet acceptance would have entailed an unacceptable humiliation, and so Henry undertook his extraordinary journey to Canossa in an attempt to outflank his opponents by reaching a deal with Pope Gregory.

The move failed to stop the malcontents electing Rudolf of Rheinfelden as the first real anti-king in March 1077. Rudolf was backed by the leading Saxons, the dukes of Bavaria and Carinthia, and around eight middling secular lords, plus the archbishops of Mainz, Salzburg, Magdeburg and their suffragan bishops. The majority of lay and ecclesiastical lords were still loyal to the emperor or at least neutral. However, the combination of civil war in Germany and the open struggle with the Gregorian papacy intensified the divisions. Both Henry and the Gregorians deposed each other’s supporters from the episcopate, while the king replaced the rebellious southern dukes with loyalists in 1079, including the Staufers, who received Swabia. There were now rival kings, popes, dukes and bishops, entrenching the conflict in the localities and widening the numbers of those involved with vested interests. The relatively even balance prevented either side from achieving sufficient preponderance to force their opponents to accept peace.

Although obstinate, Henry was sufficiently astute to seize the collapse of the Welf-Tuscan alliance in 1095 not merely to escape from northern Italy but to offer significant concessions across the next three years. This confirmed one of the two main political outcomes of this turbulent period: the demise of the old ducal elite and its replacement by a more numerous group controlling more modest jurisdictions. This group was recruited from the middling families who had amassed allodial property and county jurisdictions and were now accommodated by the creation of new jurisdictions associated with ducal rank. Henry reconciled the Zähringer, whom he had deposed from Carinthia in 1078, by raising their allodial property in the Black Forest to a new duchy 20 years later. This was rounded out by transferring Zürich, the richest royal domain in the region, as well as other jurisdictions formerly associated with Swabia. Meanwhile, the counts Palatine emerged as equivalent to dukes on the Middle Rhine by 1156. Henry V continued this policy after his accession in 1106, which coincided with the extinction of the Saxon Billungs. Although Saxony was not partitioned, Henry gave the Billung allodial property to the rising Askanier and Welf families. Other jurisdictions in Saxony were consolidated as a distinct landgraviate of Thuringia by 1131, while the remnants of what had been the Saxon North March (Nordmark) were detached in 1134, becoming the margraviate of Brandenburg after 1157.

The tentative return to consensual politics unravelled as Henry V sought to supplant his father after 1105, leading to renewed war until the latter’s death the following year. Henry V’s heavy handling of his former favourite, Lothar von Supplinburg, triggered another revolt in 1112–15 during which the king lost control of northern Germany and only survived thanks to continued Staufer support. Antagonism resurfaced at Henry V’s death in 1125. The leading Welf, Heinrich ‘the Black’ of Bavaria, defected from his former Staufer allies and backed the election of Lothar von Supplinburg. Conrad Staufer of Franconia was proclaimed king by his own supporters, including his elder brother in Swabia, splitting Germany north–south. He only accepted defeat in 1135 in return for a pardon, finally allowing Lothar III to tour the south.

The outcome confirmed the second lasting consequence from the troubles since 1073: command monarchy was discredited and defeated. The Trebur meeting of 1076 was the first of what historians have called ‘kingless assemblies’ (königlose Tage), as senior lords convened on their own initiative. Other meetings followed in 1105, 1121 and 1122, the latter compelling Henry V to settle the Investiture Dispute with the Worms Concordat. Although further collective action failed to avert violence in 1125, Lothar III nonetheless returned to a more consensual style. However, this did not restore Ottonian conditions. Instead, the restructured elite now saw themselves as sharing responsibility for the Empire’s welfare. This was expressed as ‘emperor and Empire’ (imperator et regnum), first voiced at the 1122 assembly and signifying that lords expected to participate in important decisions rather than merely offer advice. It remained for the Staufers to adapt governance to meet these expectations.

Prince Junio Valerio Borghese

"Junio Valerio Borghese in the guise of officer of Regia Marina; member of the noble Borghese family, he got on during World War II. Italy. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)"

“Junio Valerio Borghese in the guise of officer of Regia Marina; member of the noble Borghese family, he got on during World War II. Italy. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)”

(1906–1974) naval officer and political figure

This member of the BORGHESE FAMILY carried on the family military tradition. His personal charisma, independence of mind, military professionalism, and ability to inspire loyalty suggest similarities with the Renaissance CONDOTTIERI of his ancestry. His well-planned attacks on ships supplying the anti-Franco forces during the Spanish civil war could not be publicized at the time because Italy was not officially at war, but they caught the attention of BENITO MUSSOLINI and gave Borghese access to Italy’s highest military and political circles. He developed new techniques of naval attack using small submarines, torpedo boats (MAS), and human-guided torpedoes. During WORLD WAR II he led successful attacks with human-guided torpedoes against British ships in Gibraltar and Alexandria. After Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943, Borghese was among the few naval officers who sided with Mussolini and continued to fight against the Allies. As commander of the battalion Decima Mas he fought against Italian and Yugoslav partisans. His insistence on independent action led to his temporary arrest for insubordination, but he was too popular with the troops to be detained. The slogan of his corps was Tutti per Junio, Junio per tutti (All for Junio, Junio for all). His troops attempted to keep Tito’s Yugoslav forces out of Italian territory. A tribunal sentenced him to 12 years in jail after the war, but he was released almost immediately. In post- war politics he was active in the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement ( MSI ). In March 1971 he staged a coup against the government with a ragtag band of followers that was quickly dispersed. He fled to Spain to avoid arrest. His funeral in Rome brought out large numbers of personal admirers and political sympathizers. His book of memoirs covering the years 1935–43 was published in English under the title Sea Devils (1952).


Decima Mas

The most innovative naval arm was the “ X ” MAS (Decima Mas). This unit was made up of (1) midget submarines; (2) underwater swimmers trained in sabotage; (3) surface speedboats filled with explosives and piloted by crewmen who jumped off shortly before the vessels hit their targets; and (4) the slow-moving torpedo, or SLC, which was ridden by two men under water into enemy harbors. The most successful of these weapons was the SLC, directly developed from a World War I weapon that was employed against Austria-Hungary with good results; it was usually launched from a submarine. The most spectacular success for the SLCs occurred on 18 December 1941, when three of them entered Alexandria harbour and crippled the British battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant. With the exception of the midget submarines, the naval High Command ignored these weapons until 1935 and then only grudgingly supported junior officers involved in innovative development. A more forceful development program begun after World War I might well have made an important difference in World War II.


Post 1943 the “ X ” MAS (Decima Mas) unit was an autonomous force organized by Prince Julio Valerio Borghese. Composed of 25,000 volunteers, it gained a reputation for effective and hard fighting against the partisans, primarily Tito’s Yugoslav Partisans in Istria. It also included a women’s unit. In addition, the Germans recruited Italian volunteers into the Waffen-SS. These units had both Italian and German names and usually were commanded by German officers. They performed well on the Anzio Front and against partisans.

Borghese family

This family of the Roman aristocracy traces its origins back to 13th-century Siena. They moved to Rome in the 16th century, gaining influence in the Catholic Church and the court of Spain. Camillo Borghese became Pope PAUL V ; other family members were cardinals, senators, and soldiers. Marcantonio Borghese (1598–1658), nephew of Pope Paul V and the largest Roman landowner, received from the Spanish king the titles of prince and grandee of Spain. Breaking with the family tradition of loyalty to papacy and monarchy, Prince Camillo Borghese (1775–1832) sided with the JACOBINS in 1798 and supported the Napoleonic regime. He married Pauline Bonaparte (1780–1825), a sister of NAPOLEON I , at the emperor’s request, became a general in the French army, and governor of Napoleon’s Italian possessions. The Borghese did not support the movement for Italian unification and remained loyal to the PAPACY . They belonged to the so-called Black Aristocracy of Rome that made peace with the Italian state slowly and grudgingly. The family’s monumental Palazzo Borghese, a splendid example of aristocratic architecture, was an exclusive meeting place for national and international celebrities. The Borghese Museum and Gallery, open to the public, house the extensive art collections of the family.

Wars of Italian Independence


The Battle of Solferino, by Adolphe Yvon


These wars saw the KINGDOM OF SARDINIA , its allies, and formations of volunteers fighting against the forces of the AUSTRIAN EMPIRE . The First War of National Independence broke out during the REVOLUTION of 1848. After Milanese insurgents had forced imperial troops to evacuate Milan and the imperial government in Vienna was on the verge of collapsing as a result of revolution in that city, on March 23, 1848, King CHARLES ALBERT marched his army from Piedmont into Austrian Lombardy. Pledging support for the cause of Italian independence, he pro- claimed the union of Lombardy and Venetia with his kingdom. The Austrian forces under the octagenarian Marshall Radetsky held out, struck back, and forced Charles Albert’s forces back into Piedmont after defeating them at the first battle of Custoza on July 23–25, 1848. The Armistice of Salasco (August 8, 1848) put on end to the fighting, but hostilities broke out again when the Piedmontese denounced the armistice on March 12, 1849. This time the Piedmontese forces were defeated decisively at the battle of Novara fought on March 23, 1849. Charles Albert resigned from the throne in favor of his son, who became King VICTOR EMMANUEL II . Radetsky and the imperial government agreed to a settlement that allowed Piedmont to retain the constitution of 1848. The Piedmontese agreed to withdraw all their troops behind their own borders, demobilize, pay an indemnity, and promise future peace and cooperation between the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Austrian Empire. The decisive defeat of Piedmont-Sardinia in this conflict did not prevent that state from pursuing the cause of Italian independence in the years to come. In fact, the retention of the constitution and the fact that after the war it became a haven for political refugees from other Italian states strengthened Piedmont’s claim to champion the cause of Italian unity.

The Second War of Independence broke out in April 1859. Having secured a promise of military help from France with the secret AGREEMENT OF PLOMBIÈRES , Prime Minister CAVOUR of Piedmont-Sardinia succeeded in provoking Austria into declaring war on Piedmont. On April 29 Austrian forces crossed the border into Piedmont and could conceivably have defeated the outnumbered Piedmontese by moving rapidly before the arrival of the French. But their slow advance allowed the French emperor NAPOLEON III to have a large army in place by June. Also fighting on the French-Piedmontese side were volunteer units commanded by GIUSEPPE GARIBALDI . The French contributed almost 150,000 troops, the Piedmontese 80,000, and Garibaldi’s volunteers numbered about 10,000. The French bore the brunt of the fighting at the bloody battles of Magenta (June 4) and Solferino (June 24). At Solferino the Piedmontese army prevailed in the related engagement of San Martino. Garibaldi, operating independently in the mountains, was able to take his forces deep into enemy territory by outmaneuvering his opponents. The war ended unexpectedly when Napoleon III and Austrian emperor Francis Joseph signed the Armisitice of Villafranca on July 5, 1859. Napoleon’s motivations for this unexpected decision are not entirely clear, but he may have been influenced by the high losses suffered by his army, by a Prussian mobilization on France’s border on the Rhine River, and by concern that the Italian unification movement was gathering too much momentum as a result of the war. Napoleon had agreed that Piedmont should annex the regions of LOMBARDY and VENETIA , but not other territories. In the event, the Piedmontese had to settle for Lombardy. The acquisition of additional territory in the Romagna and central Italy was an indirect result of this war, which was not foreseen when military operations ceased. A chagrined Cavour resigned as prime minister, but returned to power in January 1860 to oversee the decisive push toward Italian unity that occurred that year.

Italy acquired the region of Venetia as a result of the Third War of Independence that was fought in 1866. This time Italy was allied with Prussia against Austria. Military operations began on June 16, with the Austrians forced to divide their forces on two distant fronts. On the Italian front Italian troops heavily outnumbered the Austrians, but a confusing command structure, and poor planning and organization nullified their numerical advantage. The Austrian army prevailed at the second battle of Custoza fought on June 24, 1866. The Austrian navy inflicted severe losses on the Italian fleet at the battle of Lissa fought on July 20, 1866. But Prussia’s decisive victories that same month forced Austria to cede Venetia to Italy. At Austria’s insistence the cession occurred indirectly, since the Austrians refused to hand over Venetia to the Italians, handing it over instead to France, which then turned it over to Italy. That gesture of disdain contributed to keeping animosities between Austria and Italy alive and sustained Italian IRREDENTISM until WORLD WAR I , when Italy went to war against Austria to acquire the Trentino–Alto Adige, Istria, and Trieste. For that reason Italy’s role in the first world conflict was sometimes referred to as the fourth war of independence.

Napoleon III (1808–1873) emperor of the French (1852–1870)

Born Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, and often referred to as Louis-Napoleon, this nephew of NAPOLEON I spent his life in the shadow of his uncle, whose accomplishments he sought to emulate. Expelled from France after the defeat of his uncle, Louis-Napoleon spent his youth and early adulthood in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. In the latter, he plotted with liberal conspirators and took part in the REVOLUTIONS in 1830–31. In 1840 he was sentenced to life imprisonment in France for attempting to seize power, but escaped in 1846. He returned to France during the REVOLUTION of 1848. In December 1848 he was elected president of the French Republic on the popular appeal of his name and family background. His sympathy for the cause of Italian independence, which he had supported in his youth, did not prevent him from sending an army to put down the ROMAN REPUBLIC in 1849. In November 1852 he assumed the title of emperor of the French by popular plebiscite, and the numeration of Napoleon III to indicate the continuity of the family dynasty (Napoleon II would have been the son of Napoleon I, who died with- out occupying the throne).

Louis-Napoleon’s interest in Italian affairs was partly due to his youthful association with Italian liberals, a romantic desire to emulate his uncle’s achievements, and to the traditional rivalry between France and Austria for dominance of the Italian peninsula. He was receptive to CAVOUR’s overtures for French support against Austria. In July 1858 they met secretly in the town of PLOMBIÈRES and agreed to a division of the spoils in case of war with Austria. Cavour provoked Austria into declaring war on Piedmont-Sardinia in April 1859, Louis Napoleon intervened in the conflict, and French troops defeated the Austrians at the battles of Magenta and Solferino. Intervention had consequences that Louis-Napoleon had not anticipated. His sudden and unannounced conclusion of an armistice with Austria after his initial victories angered Italian patriots who expected the complete defeat and expulsion of Austria from Italy. However, they took advantage of Austria’s partial defeat to stir uprisings in central and southern Italy, which led to the unification of the country in 1860–61. That was not what Louis-Napoleon had in mind. He favored a kingdom of Italy in the north ruled by his ally and personal friend VICTOR EMMANUEL II , but he did not welcome a large Italian kingdom strong enough to act independently of France. He nevertheless accepted the fait accompli, gaining for France the territories of NICE and SAVOY as compensation.

Relations with the newly formed Kingdom of Italy were often tense because Louis-Napoleon insisted on protecting the pope’s temporal power and political independence, largely to appease Catholic sentiment in France and the rest of Europe. In 1867 he dispatched troops to fight off an attempt to capture Rome led by GIUSEPPE GARIBALDI . While that encounter confirmed Napoleon’s negative image among the most ardent Italian patriots, many Italians were still grateful for his earlier help. King Victor Emmanuel II had to be dissuaded from dragging Italy into war at Louis-Napoleon’s side in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. A recent proposal to erect a monument in Milan in honor of Napoleon III is a belated acknowledgment of the decisive role played by this often-indecisive ruler in the RISORGIMENTO .

Admiral Arturo Riccardi (1878–1966)


Riccardi had the unfortunate task of taking over from a predecessor deemed to have failed in the eyes of Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini. Evidence of the failure was not hard to find, with three out of Italy’s six battleships sitting on the bed of the major naval base at Taranto.

Born in Pavia in 1878, Riccardi saw action with the marines in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900–1901 and also further action during the First World War, although this would have been relatively limited. Post-war, he spent a period as a staff officer before being promoted to rear admiral in 1932, and after joining the Fascist Party in 1934, he was later promoted to vice admiral in 1935. His responsibilities included naval personnel, making him the equivalent of the Royal Navy’s Second Sea Lord. Succeeding the disgraced Admiral Domenico Cavagnari as Chief of Staff of the Regia Marina on 11 December 1940, Riccardi also held the position of the Navy’s Under-secretary of State.

His duties included liaison with the Kriegsmarine over the defence of Italy, but despite Riccardi forcing a more aggressive strategy at sea, Italian failures continued with the Battle of Cape Matapan, the big clash between the Italian and British navies, where the Axis air power was not provided by the Italian Regia Aeronautica but by the German Luftwaffe.

Riccardi had taken up his new post at a time when Italy had proved incapable of subjugating Yugoslavia and Greece, but the Germans pressed him to cut British maritime communications between Alexandria and Athens. Italian ships were sent into the waters south of Greece to attack British convoys, but British aerial reconnaissance soon spotted the Italian ships. This was a marked contrast to the situation with the Italians, which lacked their own naval air power and relied upon the Air Force to provide reconnaissance as well as air strikes, but cooperation between the two services was so poor as to be virtually non-existent.

The Battle of Cape Matapan exposed a major weakness in Italian battle plans, which was that they did not expect to engage an enemy at night. Lacking radar, night gunnery would have been difficult, but not impossible given training and suitable optical instruments.

Mussolini had boasted that the Mediterranean was ‘Mare Nostrum’, which meant ‘our sea’, but while Italy effectively cut the sea in two, it never controlled it. It was only a matter of time after the Allies invaded North Africa in November 1942, followed by an amphibious and airborne assault on Sicily the following spring. When Benito Mussolini was overthrown, Riccardi also fell from grace and was replaced on 25 July 1943.

While some maintain that Riccardi was a specialist in naval air power, the truth was that he, and other Italian naval officers, had precious little experience of air power. His failure to ensure that the fleet under his command at Taranto was adequately protected was unforgivable, but he was promoted further. It was not his fault that Italian aerial reconnaissance was so bad that the presence of the British Mediterranean Fleet was not detected, but even so, there was complacency at Supermarina, the Italian Admiralty, which took it for granted that British forces would be detected in time for Italian warships to leave harbour and engage them.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that Riccardi did not face charges of being a war criminal.


Although it was a substantial force on paper, the Italian navy suffered from fundamental problems. Italy lagged in several key areas of naval technology. One area was sonar, which was just beginning to be introduced at the start of the war. Also, in the disastrous March 1941 Battle of Matapan, the Italians discovered to their dismay that the Allies had deployed radar on their warships. The Italians did not deploy their first warship radar until a year later, in March 1942. Ironically, Italy’s scientific community had been working on radar in the mid-1930s, but the Italian government did not fully support its efforts. Of ULTRA intercepts, the Italians knew nothing, although they assumed the Germans were letting the Allies know about Italian operations, and the Germans assumed the Italians were doing the same.

Italian ship armor plate was inferior as judged by Allied standards. Italian heavy ships relied on long-range gunnery, but guns in cruiser and destroyer turrets were mounted too close to each other, thus interfering in the flight of shells, a problem compounded by an immoderate 1 percent weight tolerance for shells. This resulted in excessive salvo spreads, as opposed to the much tighter British salvos.

The Italians sought to avoid night fighting by their heavy ships, and the navy lacked flashless night charges for ships with 8-inch or larger guns, an error not rectified until 1942. The navy dropped night-fighting training for large ships in the 1930s, precisely when the British navy was adopting such tactics for its heavy ships, including battleships. Italian losses in night surface actions during the war would be heavy and almost completely one-sided.

Italy also experienced problems with its submarines. There were three classes of subs. The large oceangoing submarines were part of the new oceanic navy. Many were based out of Bordeaux, France. In 189 patrols, they sank over 500,000 tons of Allied ships, with another 200,000 tons damaged. They also conducted mostly ineffective runs to Japan for key war sup- plies, and they operated in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Medium and small submarines hunted closer to home. In the Mediterranean Sea, these classes conducted 1,553 patrols with dismal results when contrasted to the successes tallied by far fewer German submarines dispatched to that theater. This outcome was, in part, due to the Italian doctrine that called for submarines to submerge during daytime and wait for a target to come within range. The Italians eschewed attacks on the surface in wolf packs at night. Their torpedoes were reliable but had smaller warheads than those of most other nations, thus causing less damage. Despite its long coastline and its colonies, Italy had only 25,000 mines in 1939, and most dated of these from World War I.

In the 1920s, the Italians experimented with the snorkel, a tube to the surface that allowed submarines to secure air while submerged, but they ultimately dropped its development as a dead end. Their submarines also suffered from slow submerging speeds—they were two or three times slower than German boats. Italy also had to rebuild many of its submarines during the war because their large sails (the superstructure where the surface bridge and periscope were located) were easily picked up by radar. Italian periscopes were too short, and the Mediterranean itself was a much clearer sea then the Atlantic, which made it easier for Allied pilots to locate submerged submarines.

In spite of these limitations, the fuel-strapped Italian navy fought bravely during the war and transported to Africa 85 percent of the supplies and 92 percent of the troops that left port. In numerous battles above, on, and below the seas, the navy sank many Allied warships and forced the British to maintain a powerful naval force at both ends of the Mediterranean. In September 1943 when Italy switched sides in the war, the bulk of the Italian fleet joined the Allies.

Italian naval losses before the armistice consisted of 1 battleship, 11 cruisers, 44 destroyers, 41 large torpedo boats, 33 MAS-style PT boats, 86 submarines, and 178 other vessels. After the armistice, Italy lost 1 battleship, 4 destroyers, 5 large torpedo boats, 25 MAS boats, 3 submarines, and 23 other vessels. Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic, organized in north Italy, seized some Italian warships, and most of these were subsequently sunk; the most important was the heavy cruiser Bolzano. Total wartime personnel losses for the Italian navy came to 28,837, with 4,177 of this number occurring after the armistice. Up to the armistice, Italy also lost 2,018,616 tons of merchant shipping.

Ambitions of Condottieri


Braccio Andrea d’Oddo Fortebraccio


The Papal States, until well after the arrival of Martin V in Rome in 1420, remained the area in which the independence and ambitions of condottieri could be most easily asserted. Naples, after the death of Ladislas, became once more the scene of continuous civil war until the final victory of Alfonso V and the Aragonese in 1442. These were the conditions which encouraged the emergence of the two greatest condottieri figures of this period, Braccio da Montone and Musio Attendolo Sforza, whose distinctive styles of warfare were to be handed on to their successors and pupils and were to some extent to dominate Italian military history for the rest of the century.

Musio Attendolo, better known as Sforza, was born into the influential and warlike Romagnol family of the Attendoli in 1369. Although they were not noble, but in fact affluent rural middle class, the Attendoli were already competing with the noble Pasolini family for the domination of Cotignola, the town which was shortly to be given to Hawkwood by the pope. Musio, like many of his family, was destined to be a soldier, and at the age of thirteen he became a page to one of the men-at-arms of Boldrino da Panicale. In the early 1390’s he was with Alberigo da Barbiano, first as a squadron commander and then with his own condotta (contract) for 75 cavalry. By 1398 he was an independent condottiere employed in the defence of Perugia against the Visconti, and then in 1402 employed by Florence. He was in the Florentine army at Casalecchio where he was captured, and he remained with the Florentines as one of their leading commanders for the campaign against Pisa. By this time he had 180 lances and was well on his way to becoming one of Italy’s leading captains. After the fall of Pisa in 1406, he took service with Niccolò d’Este, the Lord of Ferrara, and became captain general of the Ferrarese army against Ottobuono Terzo, the Visconti captain who had seized Parma. By 1409 Ottobuono had been defeated and killed by Sforza, who received the castle of Montecchio in Emilia as a reward from Niccolò d’Este. Sforza then moved southwards and joined the army of the papal-Angevin-Florentine alliance against Ladislas of Naples and was the principal architect of the great victory of Roccasecca over the Neapolitans in 1411. As a reward for this success, Sforza was made Count of Cotignola by Pope John XXIII, thus recognising the predominance in that town which the Attendoli had by now established. However, he deserted the papal cause in the next year and joined Ladislas, receiving a condotta for 830 lances.

So by 1412, Musio Sforza had reached the top of his profession. He had not in fact risen from nothing as his eulogists claimed, since he had always had the advantage of a large and warlike family, many of whom served in his company, and a solid base in Cotignola from which to recruit. Nevertheless, his success had been spectacular and had depended to a considerable extent on his own military prowess. It also depended on some well-timed changes of side and on three marriages, each of which had brought him estates and added prestige. Sforza was described by one of the chroniclers as: ‘More than usually handsome with fierce features and an extremely powerful physique. He was intelligent and crafty, and a considerable orator who could inspire his troops with splendid speeches.’ He certainly seemed to be able to inspire his troops with an unusual degree of loyalty and discipline, and it was from this discipline that his reputation as a military innovator sprang. Because of this discipline and the amount of careful planning he put into each action, he was able to control his troops on the battlefield to an unusual degree. He was a believer in cautious tactics executed by large masses of well-disciplined troops, and this meant not only cavalry but also infantry on which he placed particular, and for his day unusual, emphasis.

Sforza was far less successful as a politician, and in Naples after the death of Ladislas he inevitably became involved in politics. During these years he was twice imprisoned and was only saved by the steadfastness of his family and his troops, who were able to exert military pressure to gain his release. On the field of battle he usually found himself opposed by Braccio da Montone against whose fire and brilliance he tended to be at a slight disadvantage. His role in these events was always that of commander of the troops of one or other political faction in Naples, and he never seemed to be interested in winning an independent state for himself. It was as Great Constable of Joanna II, the successor to Ladislas, that he marched northwards early in 1424, hoping to settle scores with Braccio who was besieging Aquila. It was mid-winter, and Sforza was forced to use the coast road up the east coast rather than striking directly across the mountains. At Pescara he was confronted by the river Pescara in spate and the Bracceschi holding the city. So he elected to ford the river at its mouth in an attempt to bypass the city. There was a gale blowing in from the Adriatic and this made the crossing extremely hazardous, but Sforza successfully led his advance guard across only to find that the main army had halted, deterred by the prospect of crossing behind him. There was no alternative for Sforza but to return and lead the rest of his troops across himself. This he proceeded to do; he re-crossed successfully, got his army moving again and set out to ford the swollen river for the third time. However, one of his pages got into difficulties and as Sforza turned to help him his horse lost its footing and Sforza was thrown in full armour into the river and drowned. His son, Francesco, held the Sforza companies together for the decisive campaign that was still to come, but briefly it was the figure of Braccio da Montone which predominated in Italy.

The Fortebraccio family of Perugia were nobles and amongst the most powerful families in the city. Their original rural base was the town of Montone, but they had lived in Perugia for at least two centuries. Andrea d’Oddo Fortebraccio was born in 1368, just a year before Sforza, and at some early stage began to call himself Braccio. From his first military engagement, at which he was captured because of his impetuosity, Braccio had a reputation for courage and audacity. But it was a surprisingly long time before he established himself as a commander of troops. Perhaps this was partly because his fiery methods were distrusted by the senior condottieri under whom he served. But the more likely cause was that from the early 1390’s the Fortebracci fell foul of the Michelotti family, who had gained control in Perugia, and had gone into exile, also losing their estates at Montone. So Braccio was unable to rely on his own recruiting ground and spent much of his life as an exile and a leader of exiles.

Braccio was severely wounded in the head in his second military encounter and was for a time half paralysed, and always walked with a limp. But he was a commanding figure, above average height and described by his contemporaries as a man who always stood out in a group. He served with a small following under Alberigo da Barbiano and with Florence in the 1390’s, and was back with Alberigo in 1405 but still with only 12 lances. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, he rallied the Perugian exiles and tried to recover his position at Perugia, and the inconsistency towards his employers necessitated by this preoccupation with Perugia also contributed to the slow growth of his military reputation. So at the age of 37, when Sforza was already joint commander of the Florentine army, Braccio was still only a minor squadron commander.

However in 1406 the turning point in his career came. After some successful operations with Alberigo, which won him both the respect and the jealousy of his colleagues, he set out on his own, determined to make his own way. A series of blackmailing operations against small towns brought in cash, and he began to build up his own company always relying for the core of it on his fellow exiles from Perugia. In 1407 Roccacontrada in the Marches offered him the lordship of the town in exchange for protection against Ludovico Migliorati, and this at last gave Braccio a secure base. In the next years he steadily built up his strength as he moved from one side to the other in the balance between Ladislas and the papal-Angevin alliance. But it was always Perugia which was in the forefront of his mind, and he continued to lose opportunities for advancement as he concentrated on that. Braccio, unlike Sforza, was always the independent condottiere, but his restlessness was not just the search for a state for himself but the quest for a particular state, his native city, to which he felt he could only return as lord.

In 1414 Pope John XXIII made Braccio captain general of the Church and Count of Montone, and he had thus reached a position where rivalry with Sforza, now commander of the Neapolitan army, was inevitable. But it was two years later, in 1416, that the decisive moment for Braccio came. With his new strength and authority, and taking advantage of the lack of papal control during the Council of Constance, he launched his final assault on Perugia. The Perugians appealed to Carlo Malatesta to help them, and he marched to their relief with an army of some 5,000 men. The battle of S. Egidio which ensued was not a great battle in terms of numbers, but it was decisive for Perugia and was an interesting display of Braccio’s techniques.

The strength of Braccio’s methods lay, as did that of Sforza, in being able to control troops on the battlefield. However, there the similarity ends; Braccio believed in dividing his army into a number of small squadrons and committing them to battle piecemeal. In this way he found it not only easier to maintain personal control over the battle but was able to use his squadrons in rotation and thus rest them during the battle. The effect of this was that they fought fiercely for short spells and then fell back to be replaced by a refreshed squadron. It was this, together with the natural daring of Braccio himself, that produced the speed of manoeuvre and the bravura of Braccesco tactics. At the battle of S. Egidio, which was fought on a hot day in the height of summer, Braccio had had the foresight to provide large quantities of water in barrels immediately behind his lines. Thus, as the long day’s fighting wore on, Braccio’s troops remained fresher and more vigorous than the Malatesta forces drawn up in traditional mass divisions according to a prearranged plan. It was significant that Carlo Malatesta, having drawn up his army in a great half circle into which he hoped to draw the impetuous Bracceschi and then surround them, had retired behind the battle line to his tent believing that once the battle had started there was little more that he could do. Braccio avoided the obvious trap, kept up a constant pressure all along the line and finally, as the Malatesta troops tired and began to lose their cohesion, he threw in his reserves to break through. Carlo Malatesta was caught up in the flight of his army and captured; 300 dead were left on the field.

The Battle of S. Egidio made Braccio the master of Perugia and many of the surrounding towns. He had created a state for himself, and he devoted a part of each of his remaining years to governing it. He built extensively in Perugia and employed his army to dig a canal which drained part of the Umbrian plain into Lake Trasimene. But one of his main interests was inevitably defence; he reorganised the Perugian militia and held jousts and the traditional Perugian ‘battles of stones’ in the streets to arouse the military spirit of his new subjects. His company was increasingly made up of Umbrians and began to look almost like a national army. It certainly saw constant action, as Braccio continued to campaign each year either in self defence against growing pressure from Martin V, or in the Neapolitan wars against Sforza. He maintained his state intact, despite the activities of the pope, but in the end it was a combination of papal and Neapolitan forces which caught him outside Aquila in June 1424.

Braccio’s determined independence and self confidence was ultimately the cause of his downfall. Isolated in his attempts to gain control of the Arbuzzi and add it to his Umbrian state, he rejected opportunities to defeat the allied army piecemeal, as it assembled, in the belief that he could inflict a defeat on it which would settle the power balance in central Italy permanently. It was again a hot summer’s day when Braccio’s army faced a much larger combined army on the plain of Aquila. His opponents that day were not only the Sforza squadrons led by Francesco and his cousin Micheletto Attendolo, but also the new Neapolitan captain general, Jacopo Caldora. Caldora had served with Braccio in the past and learnt a lot from him, and he also had a company made up largely of troops from the Abruzzi who were personally loyal to him. The tactics of Caldora and Francesco Sforza were inevitably a combination of the two schools of warfare. The army was divided into large squadrons and Caldora employed the Braccesco method of constantly rotating the squadrons, so that he always had fresh troops in reserve. Braccio, with a much smaller army, planned to hold the disciplined impetus of the Sforzeschi in check on his right while he broke Caldora in the centre and on the left. But he had underestimated Caldora’s mastery of his own tactics and found that, although he gained an initial advantage against him, in the end it was Caldora who had the greater reserve strength and was able to counter attack with devastating effect. Meanwhile Braccio’s right was also unable to hold the Sforzeschi who began to break through. As a last resort Braccio’s chief lieutenant, Niccolò Piccinino, who had been detailed to guard the rear against an outbreak from the besieged city of Aquila, left his post in an attempt to restore the balance in the main battle. However, he not only failed to do this, but also left the rear exposed to a determined rush from the Aquilani, who began to sack the Braccesco camp. The day was totally lost for Braccio; his army was scattered and he himself wounded and taken prisoner. The chronicles record that when he was being treated for his head wounds by Caldora’s doctor, an unknown hand jogged the doctor’s arm and drove the scalpel into Braccio’s brain. From this wound and also from sheer despair he could not recover. Three days later Braccio died, having refused to eat or exchange a word with his captors.

The list of the commanders in the two armies at Aquila could almost be used as a roll call of the leading soldiers of the next generation. Among the Bracceschi were Niccolò Piccinino, another Perugian who was to lead the Milanese army for 20 years, Gattamelata, commander of the Venetian army from 1434 to 1441, and Niccolò Fortebraccio della Stella, commander of the Florentine army in the early 1430’s. In the allied army, in addition to Caldora and Francesco Sforza, were Micheletto Attendolo whose career will take up some of the following pages, Bartolomeo Colleoni, Venetian commander from 1455 to 1475, Niccolò Mauruzzi da Tolentino, leader of one of the most famous dynasties of condottieri in the fifteenth century, and Luigi da Sanseverino, whose family was also to become increasingly famous in Italian armies. The names of Sforza and Braccio were battle cries for almost the whole century, and even as late as the Pazzi War in 1478–9, many of the Florentine and Venetian troops still marched under the banner of the black ram (montone) on a yellow ground. At this time Braccio’s grandson, Bernardino, was a leading Venetian commander, and the Milanese army contained several members of the Sforza family; but the old rallying cries and the old traditions of the Bracceschi and Sforzeschi embraced a wider group of late fifteenth-century commanders than just the survivors of the two families.

But while these traditions lived on, the political conditions in Italy, which so vitally affected the type of warfare and the military institutions, were entering a new phase in 1424. Milan, Florence and Venice were about to embark on thirty-years of prolonged warfare from which permanent military institutions finally emerged. Martin V had clearly started the process of restoring order in the Papal States and building up a papal army. Alfonso of Aragon was already committed to his long campaign to capture the throne of Naples, a campaign which ended in success and a new and more powerful Neapolitan dynasty in 1442. From this moment onwards it is necessary to think more of armies, military institutions, and military administration rather than individual captains for whom the opportunities for independent action were rapidly declining. This is not to say that the leaders did not remain condottieri; but they were condottieri of the type of Jacopo dal Verme rather than that of Braccio da Montone.

Alexander’s Plan Operation Shingle



Operation Shingle was a daring plan of Alexander’s to land troops on the beaches of Anzio, in the rear of the Gustav Line and only 20 miles south of Rome, thus it was hoped forcing the enemy to abandon first one and then the other. On closer investigation in December 1943, the fear that the beachhead could not link up with the Allied armies further south meant that Eisenhower tried to shelve the operation, but it was revived once he had left the Mediterranean command. On 6 January 1944 the Prime Minister tried to persuade Brooke to fly out to visit him in Marrakesh, where he was recovering from pneumonia, saying, ‘We must get this Shingle business settled, especially in view of the repercussions of the new proposals about Anvil which will certainly make the US Chiefs of Staff Committee stare.’

Because the Germans had fiercely defended the Gustav Line that winter, Anvil started to resemble not an associated but a rival operation to the Anzio attack, to both Churchill’s and Brooke’s chagrin as they had never thought its strategic value matched the investment it would require. Although Brooke did not fly out, Bedell Smith, Alexander and Maitland Wilson all conferred with Churchill in early January, and Shingle was resuscitated, in conjunction with an attempt to smash through the Gustav Line to the Liri Valley, which led to Rome. (On his return from Marrakesh, Churchill insisted that a Customs official came to Downing Street in order to assess the duty on everything he had brought home; Lawrence Burgis saw the cheque duly made out to HM Customs and Excise.)

Marshall later acknowledged that the struggles over the size, composition and timing of Operation Anvil had constituted ‘a bitter and unremitting fight with the British right up to the launching’. The mutual suspicion was evident at the time, and even in 1949, when Marshall was asked by Pentagon historians whether the British had attempted to use Anvil in order to secure additional resources for the Mediterranean theatre, ‘although they never seriously considered actually invading Southern France’, he replied that ‘this was the case’ and ‘that’s what the British always were doing.’

As Eisenhower’s Planners in London increased the number of divisions needed in the initial Overlord assault from three to five, so pressure mounted for extra landing craft and naval assault vessels to come from the Mediterranean. Montgomery and Bedell Smith, who both worked under Eisenhower, agreed in early January that Anvil would be greatly reduced in size as a result. Eisenhower, who like Marshall saw Anvil as an important concomitant to Overlord which would hopefully draw away German troops from northern France, complained vociferously to Washington on 17 January, saying that at Teheran the Combined Chiefs of Staff ‘definitely assured the Russians that Anvil would take place’. Since French, British and American troops ‘cannot profitably be used in decisive fashion in Italy’, Anvil must go ahead, although he accepted that it had to be postponed until early June, to coincide with the new date for Overlord.

Both Churchill and Brooke believed that Allied troops could be used more profitably in Italy than on the French Riviera; the scene was thus set for another titanic clash between Marshall and Brooke, and not one in which Marshall would this time accept compromise, not least because January 1944 was the first month of the war when more American than British Commonwealth troops were engaged fighting Germans in the European theatre.

Yet not all Americans agreed with Marshall and Eisenhower. ‘The weakening of the campaign in Italy in order to invade Southern France, instead of pushing on into the Balkans, was one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war,’ wrote Mark Clark in his 1951 autobiography, Calculated Risk. His Fifth Army had been trying to break through the Gustav Line for several months, with mixed results.

I am firmly convinced that the French forces alone, with seven divisions available, could have captured Marseilles, protected Eisenhower’s southern flank, and advanced up the Rhone Valley to join hands with the main Overlord forces. The American VI Corps, with its three divisions, could then have remained in Italy…and we could have advanced into the Balkans.

The very mention of an Allied offensive in the Balkans, which Churchill saw as the natural next step after the Germans were expelled from northern Italy, was anathema to Marshall. Michael Howard believes that minds in the OPD were completely closed over the Balkans, ‘with its overtones of European subtlety and intrigue’.10 They also suspected British neo-imperialist designs there, rather as they did in the Far East, however absurd that might have been for the area north-east of the Adriatic Sea in the mid-1940s.

Where did Roosevelt stand? In October and November 1943, the US Planners feared that Overlord might be lost altogether because the President seemed to be interested in Churchill’s ideas about the Balkans. ‘We were always scared to death of Mr Roosevelt on the Balkans,’ Marshall told Pogue frankly in 1956. ‘Apparently he was with us, but we couldn’t bet on it at all.’11 There was always the possibility that the President might do over the Balkans in late 1943 what he had done over North Africa in the summer of 1942. It is clear from a telegram Churchill sent Roosevelt in late June 1944–‘Please remember how you spoke to me at Teheran about Istria’–that the two men had been at the very least ‘shooting the breeze’ together about a Balkan campaign. As for Brooke, after the war he wrote of the Americans, ‘At times I think that they imagined I supported Winston’s Balkan ambitions, which was far from being the case. Anyhow the Balkan ghost in the cupboard made my road none the easier in leading the Americans by the hand through Italy!’12 In fact Brooke had on occasion supported a Balkan campaign, whatever his later protestations.

The Anzio landings of the Allied VI Corps on Saturday 22 January 1944–initially comprising one British and one American division–might have succeeded had its American commander Major-General John Lucas got inland fast enough to capture the Alban Hills just south of Rome. He had come ashore with minimal opposition because the Germans had sent two reserve divisions from the Rome area to reinforce the Gustav Line, but he decided to get reserves, equipment and supplies ashore first, which proved a costly mistake. Kesselring despatched troops from central Italy to protect Rome, and then further reinforcements from France, Germany and Yugoslavia hemmed VI Corps into a beachhead of only 8 miles, which was defended gallantly for the next four months as Clark fought northwards to relieve it.

‘If we succeed in dealing with this business down there,’ Hitler told Warlimont, ‘there will be no further landings anywhere.’13 The Führer sent Eberhard von Mackensen’s Fourteenth Army, with its crack panzer, panzer-grenadier and paratroop units, to try to destroy the Allied beachhead, leaving the Tenth Army to hold the Gustav Line. The battlegrounds of Anzio and Monte Cassino were constantly reinforced by Hitler in early spring 1944, thereby denuding himself of divisions that he would need to deal with Overlord three months later. Marshall could not understand why Hitler did not merely withdraw his forces to the impregnable Alps, but it was evident from Ultra decrypts that he wanted to defend every inch of Italy instead.

This was Brooke’s plan for Italy, and disproves Basil Liddell Hart’s theory that it was the Germans who successfully diverted the Allies in Italy rather than the other way around. Throughout 1944, from nineteen to twenty-three German divisions–one-seventh of the entire Wehrmacht–were stationed in Italy, unable to operate in Normandy. In 1943, a full one-third of all Luftwaffe losses were sustained in the Mediterranean theatre, and in all the Italian campaign was to cost the Germans 536,000 casualties against 312,000 Allied.14 It was far harder to supply the Allies, of course, but the campaign was well worth undertaking in its earliest stages. It certainly tied down far more Germans than Anvil ever could have. The problem was that once committed emotionally–and in Churchill’s case chauvinistically–the British carried on fighting for objectives far removed from the central one that had taken them there in the first place.

According to Beaverbrook, who was lord privy seal at the time and had good access to his friend the Prime Minister, Anzio was ‘definitely an attempt to re-open the Mediterranean theatre in the hope that such progress might be made there that the Americans could be persuaded to delay D-Day until it would be little more than a mopping-up operation’.15 He claimed that at Marrakesh Churchill had been talking in terms of ‘driving the Germans headlong over the Alps and capturing Vienna’. It is most unlikely that Churchill referred to Overlord as a mere mopping-up operation, however, a phrase which smacks of Beaverbrook’s ex post facto rationalizations in favour of an early Second Front, of which he had been a chief advocate. For all that, Churchill did write a minute on 25 January saying that it was ‘very unwise to make plans on the basis of Hitler being defeated in 1944. The possibility of his gaining a victory in France cannot be excluded.’

It was not long before the failure of the break-out at Anzio became apparent, along with the failure of the Allied forces in the south to link up with the beachhead. On sending Roosevelt birthday greetings on 27 January, Marshall said: ‘I anticipate some very hard knocks, but I think these will not be fatal to our hopes, rather the inevitable stumbles on a most difficult course.’16 The next day Eden, after he had attended a Staff Conference, noted that ‘Our offensive seems to have lost its momentum.’ When Churchill suspected that he was going to get into a row with the Chiefs of Staff, he used to invite Eden along to give moral support. Even when the Foreign Secretary was recuperating from a cold, sore throat or insomnia at Binderton, he always turned up. Since Churchill had been ill at Marrakesh for as long as a fortnight over the New Year, and Eden was prime-minister-in-waiting, it was a sensible precaution.

On Monday 31 January 1944 Churchill told the War Cabinet of:

Serious disaffection about the Anzio landings. First phase has not yielded brilliant results…German offensive started. Great disappointment so far…Remarkable limitations of air, unable to prevent enemy from flinging his troops from one Front to another…A great opportunity has been lost, but may be regained…We have got a lot to learn in the way of seizing opportunities before we can beat these people.

On the first of twenty days of strong German attacks on the Anzio beachhead, Marshall wrote ‘For Eisenhower’s eyes only’ from Washington: ‘Count up all the divisions that will be in the Mediterranean, including two newly arrived US divisions, consider the requirements in Italy in view of the mountain masses north of Rome, and then consider what influence on your problem a sizeable number of divisions heavily engaged or advancing rapidly in southern France will have on Overlord.’ The fact that there were also the mountains of the Massif Central north of Provence was not mentioned. Instead Marshall concluded: ‘I will use my influence here to agree with your desires. I merely wish to be certain that localitis is not developing and that the pressures on you have not warped your judgment.’ Localitis was cod-Latin for ‘going native’, and since Marshall’s ‘influence’ in Washington was of course enormous, he was effectively advising Eisenhower to stick to his pro-Anvil, anti-Italy position and promising that, if he did, all would be well against Churchill and Brooke.

Eisenhower could not leave the localitis accusation hanging, and replied the next day to say that, although the British were opposed to Anvil, he had to compromise occasionally as part of a coalition. Nonetheless, ‘So far as I am aware, no one here has tried to urge me to present any particular view, nor do I believe that I am particularly affected by localitis.’ That Marshall was indeed worried about pressure being put on Eisenhower by Brooke, and more particularly by Churchill, was spectacularly demonstrated the following month at Malta.

On the same day that Marshall wrote to Eisenhower, Sir John Dill told Brooke that he had been ‘in and out of Marshall’s room lately trying to get him to see your point of view regarding Anvil–Overlord and trying to get his point of view’. He reported that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had delegated their power to Eisenhower on this issue and were ‘engaged in a great battle regarding Pacific strategy’, which boiled down to ‘King in particular v. the Rest’. Dill believed that Marshall was ‘somewhat afraid that some of their higher commanders had failed in Italy’, doubtless meaning Lucas, who was replaced shortly afterwards, but possibly also Clark, whose progress was painfully slow. Over the post-war occupation zones for Germany, Dill told Brooke that it was, ‘of course, the President who won’t play. The better I get to know that man the more superficial and selfish I think him. That is for your eye alone as of course it is my job to make the most and best of him.’ As for Admiral King, Dill believed ‘his war with the US Army is as bitter as his war with us’.

On Thursday 10 February, Brooke lunched at the Fleet Street offices of the Daily Telegraph with its proprietor Lord Camrose, as well as the National Labour MP and BBC Governor Harold Nicolson and Lord Ashfield, chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board. Teased about the Anzio reversals by Camrose as he entered–‘Well, what about the bridgehead?’–an irritated Brooke poured himself ‘a sulky glass of sherry’ and said, ‘It’s difficult to judge such matters at this distance.’ Nicolson recorded that after they had taken some claret in the dining room, ‘things brighten up, and a slow flush spreads over the handsome face of the CIGS.’ Brooke said that he had first noticed that ‘Winston was on the verge of a great illness’ at Cairo, when he seemed more interested in swatting flies than in listening to him, and ‘then they had great difficulty in preventing him leaving for Italy and were almost relieved when he developed fever.’



In May 1915, as war approached there were orchestrated pro-war demonstrations. On 13 May 1915, parliamentary opposition to the war led to the resignation of Salandra’s cabinet. Three days later the King re-instated Salandra when it was found impossible to appoint a neutralist administration. Salandra’s re-appointment gave him the mandate for war and, although 74 left-wing deputies opposed war, the Italian army was mobilised and war declared against Austria-Hungary on 23 May 1915 (Italy did not declare war against Germany until 1916). Once in the war, military policy passed almost entirely to the Chief of Staff, Luigi Cadorna, who led the Italian army from 1915 to 1917 on eleven costly and disastrous offensives against Austria-Hungary along the river Isonzo Map below. Italy’s lacklustre military performance in the war adversely affected her post-war efforts to secure all of the territorial demands of the Treaty of London and she finished the war feeling that she had been short-changed territorially.


From June 1915 to September 1917, Italy’s supreme commander, Luigi Cadorna, fought eleven Isonzo battles, to capture the Austro-Hungarian port of Trieste before pushing on to Vienna. He poured the bulk of Italy’s men and matériel into the attritional Isonzo battles, all fought in roughly the same area, which exceeded the western front in terms of high casualties for minimal ground gained.


The Battle of Caporetto, or the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, in October 1917 was a spectacularly successful Austro-Hungarian/German offensive against Italian forces on the upper reaches of the river Isonzo. It led to the collapse and retreat of Italian forces across the whole of north-eastern Italy. The origin of the Battle of Caporetto lay in the eleven Italian offensives led by Luigi Cadorna along the Isonzo river from May 1915 to September 1917, that threatened to break Austro-Hungarian resistance. Had Austro-Hungarian units broken, as seemed possible in August 1917, Italy could have captured the port of Trieste. Austria-Hungary appealed to Germany for help. In response, Germany sent six divisions, grouped with nine Austro-Hungarian divisions into the Fourteenth Army commanded by the German general, Otto von Below, and planning began for an assault against the Italians.

Italy’s position and conduct in the conflict were somewhat ambivalent. Although it was ostensibly an ally of both Austria-Hungary and Germany when war broke out at the end of July 1914, Italy declared its neutrality on 3 August. However, ten months later, on 23 May 1915, the Italian government abandoned this stance and declared war on Austria-Hungary – no declaration of war against Germany was issued. Subsequently, Italy and Austria conducted a vigorous but often indecisive series of battles, mainly centred upon the Austro–Italian Alpine region and the River Isonzo to the south-east towards Trieste, between June 1915 and September 1917. By the conclusion of their eleventh major battle in this area in September 1917 the Italians had forced an Austrian withdrawal, which prompted Kaiser Franz Josef to ask Kaiser Wilhelm for military assistance in the form of a counteroffensive to forestall a possible Austrian collapse. This request was initially resisted by Ludendorff, who viewed it as an unwelcome distraction; he later relented once fully apprised of the Austrians’ parlous situation. As a result, in mid-September 1917 the German Fourteenth Army was formed, comprising seven German and eight Austrian divisions, under the command of General der Infanterie Otto von Below. In addition to a number of high-quality infantry regiments and divisions, special stormtrooper units, and an abundance of artillery and other support, the Fourteenth Army included German and Austrian mountain infantry regiments, together with the requisite mountain artillery and pack animals to support them.

On 24 October 1917 German forces entered the fray in strength when the Central Powers launched a major offensive aimed at relieving the pressure on the hard-pressed Austrian forces and inflicting a significant defeat on the Italians, thereby releasing much-needed men and resources for the Western Front and elsewhere. This was the first occasion on which units of German troops were in combat against Italian forces. Although a direct response to the Austrian emperor’s request, this offensive was in many ways a logical extension of the Central Powers’ action against Serbia in October 1915, when a German army, an Austrian army and two Bulgarian armies had together overwhelmed Serbia. It also attracted some risks – it threatened to prejudice an early conclusion of the German campaign that had all but crushed Romania by 1917. In the event, the aim of the German intervention against Italy was largely accomplished: the Italian forces suffered a devastating blow at the hands of German and Austrian troops at Caporetto between 24 October and 7 November 1917. The Battle of Caporetto demonstrated the effective use by the Germans of the stormtrooper tactics and poison gas previously identified primarily with the fighting on the Western Front in France and Belgium.

Benefiting from the early morning mist that wreathed the river valleys and surrounding mountains, at 02.00 hours on 24 October, the German and Austro-Hungarian forces commenced their attack with an artillery bombardment of high-explosive, gas and smoke shells. The lack of a protracted preliminary bombardment produced complete surprise, the main assault closely following the initial artillery fire. Specialist assault troops using flamethrowers and grenades created breaches in the Italian army’s front line and infiltrated between its forward positions, where many of the defenders were badly affected by the poison gas due to the poor quality and obsolescence of their protective respirators. The stormtroopers then moved on to assault headquarters, communications sites, artillery and machine-gun positions and bunkers set behind the front line. Meanwhile the main attacking force quickly rolled over and through the Italian Second Army’s defences. So great was the surprise achieved by the attackers that virtually no Italian artillery fire was directed against them.

Even so, the fighting was particularly heavy in the centre, at the Italian strong-points of Mount Matajur and along the adjacent Colovrat and Stol ridge-lines. On the flanks the rugged terrain combined with a resolute defence by some Italian units to repel or stall the German and Austrian advance by the Tenth Army to the north-west and Second Army to the south. However, the particular success of von Below’s Fourteenth Army at the centre of the offensive allowed the Germans to strike 25 kilometres into the Italian defences by the morning of 25 October, which in turn destabilized the whole Italian line as defending units were forced to redeploy to counter this threat, simultaneously weakening their own positions. It was during the fighting at Longarone and for Mount Matajur that the then Oberleutnant Erwin Rommel, serving in the Württembergisches Gebirgs- und Schneeschuh-Bataillon with the German Alpenkorps, distinguished himself by his actions and leadership in the field, subsequently receiving the Pour le Mérite award. Although a general withdrawal was already inevitable (and the River Tagliamento offered an obvious natural line of defence), the Italian commander General Luigi Cadorna delayed this decision until 30 October, by which stage it was too late. While the Italians took some four days to cross the river, by 2 November a German division had already established a bridgehead. However, the now much-extended German and Austrian supply lines – together with the wider supply difficulties attributable to the ongoing Allied naval blockade – forced a pause in their offensive, which allowed the Italians to retreat farther, to the River Piave, by 10 November.

Despite their inability to follow through and exploit their success, Caporetto was a significant victory for the German and Austrian troops. Some 20,000 German and Austrian soldiers were killed or wounded, but no fewer than 13,000 Italians were killed, 30,000 wounded and 265,000 captured by mid-November. More tellingly, a further 350,000 Italian soldiers deserted between 24 October and 19 November 1917. A bonus of the Central Powers’ victory was the capture of 2,000 Italian mortars and at least 3,000 guns and 3,000 machine-guns during the battle.