General Luigi Cadorna: A Reappraisal

The year 1866 was not an auspicious time to join the Italian Army. The service was still reeling from the disastrous influence of its constabulary duties during the brigantaggio, the period from the unification of Italy to the late 1860s, when the primary function of the army was maintaining law and order, and was not, therefore, organized to engage a major European opponent. Although theoretically reforms had been set in motion since the late 1850s, the Italian Army defeated at Custozza in June continued to be plagued by natural inertia, the causes of which were a rigid officers corps, a lack of operational precedents, and a dearth of natural resources and national cohesion. It was in this atmosphere that Luigi Cadorna began his military career.

When he joined the army, Cadorna, like his colleagues, faced slow advancement and poor salaries. However, certain ambitious and motivated officers were interested in the study of the art and science of war, forming a ‘dedicated and compact’ corps. Luigi showed potential and an exceptional ability to organize, and in 1892 at forty-two years of age, he earned his colonelcy. Nevertheless, he was overshadowed in many respects by his father. Raffaele Cadorna had enjoyed much success during his career, fighting in 1848–9, and serving in the Piedmontese Army in the Crimea. In 1866, his corps was one of the few noteworthy Italian success stories, which helped to distance him from Italy’s dismal failures in the Seven Weeks’ War. Raffaele’s crowning achievement came in September 1870, when he completed the unification of Italy by capturing Rome during the Porta Pia while the French were fighting the Franco-Prussian War.

The years after the demise of France as Europe’s chief land power was a monumental era in the evolution of warfare. It was in this climate that Luigi formulated the ideas that were to prevail later in his military tenure. He was quick to see that the Italian Army had to modernize in order to compete in European military circles. However, this was easier to conceptualize than it was to implement. The need for quick mobilization was readily apparent, but in Italy, with its mountainous terrain and regional population differences, the new standards of military rail organization proved difficult to realize. Military modernization was expensive; and although Italy spent most of her national expenditure on the armed forces during this period, by August 1914 Italy was still considered in its military infancy. Cadorna was just reaching the higher command positions as the Italian Army grappled with these imposing dilemmas.

Four years after being promoted to colonel, Luigi was appointed to the General Staff, and there had to wait fourteen years before obtaining corps command. When the Chief of Staff position became vacant around the same time, Cadorna was considered, but was passed over for the more pliant Alberto Pollio, although many believed that Cadorna was better suited to address many of the army’s more urgent problems. However, Pollio was pro-German, and therefore seemed to be a safe choice in this era of diplomatic and military instability. Pollio continued to plan military operations with Germany and Austria-Hungary, although the alliance had been deteriorating for some time. Indeed, the reason that Italy joined the Triplice in 1882 was the need to capitalize on German military prestige. The central difficulty with the alliance was that the national antagonism between Rome and Vienna hindered diplomatic and military co-operation, and by the turn of the century, many European commentators questioned its validity. From 1902 to the beginning of the First World War, Italy negotiated with Great Britain and France, although the Italian government did not want to see the French continue to grow into a Mediterranean power. This created an enormous rift between Italy’s political and military leaders, for the politicians kept the negotiations secret, and continued to do so right until Italy declared war in May 1915. To operate in a diplomatic and military climate that was basically Clausewitzian in nature, communications between the heads of state and the military leaders were a necessity. Correspondence between the Italian government and the military establishment was virtually non-existent, and when the representatives did talk about crucial matters, the meetings were normally strained and led to misunderstandings. Furthermore, the lines of communication between the army and the navy were worse than existed between the politicians and the generals. These conditions so hampered Italian military operations that Cadorna must have felt that he was an island in a sea of confusion. With no reliable information coming from any quarter, Cadorna became isolated in his own theories. This made him appear like a hapless and disconnected commander, out of touch with reality, and unable to keep his finger on the pulse of contemporary diplomatic and military attitudes.

Just after assuming his country’s highest military rank after Pollio’s death in July 1914, it seems that many of Cadorna’s characteristics became readily apparent. He was born of an aristocratic family in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, and therefore it was assumed that he inherited many ‘Nordic’ traits from his Germanic ancestors. He was a firm disciplinarian, who was often regarded as cold and indifferent to the conditions of his front-line soldiers. However, Cadorna was preparing the Italian Army for the storm of the First World War from the time he was appointed Chief-of-Staff until Italian mobilization, for he needed to rectify numerous weaknesses before the army could become an effective force. Cadorna was not a ‘from the front’ style of commander, choosing to lead by telephone and courier, staying behind the lines to perceive the front as a whole instead of becoming fixated on one particular sector. The truth of the matter was that most of his contemporaries could not produce solutions to the complexities of modern attritional warfare, and it was Cadorna’s misfortune that many considered the Italian Army defeated by its reputation before it was ever engaged in military operations.

In a conundrum rare in the annals of military-diplomatic history, Italy needed to align herself with the leading land and naval powers to achieve anything diplomatically. Desiring to manoeuvre behind the shield of German military might, Italian diplomats also had to consider that the Italian peninsula presented over 4100 miles of indefensible coastline, therefore Great Britain and the spectre of the Royal Navy heavily influenced any Italian military venture. Although this difficulty was not as severe just after 1871, due to the awe in which Germany was held after her impressive defeat of France, as the Royal Navy continued to assert its presence in world affairs, Italy’s diplomatic bonds with Germany and Austria-Hungary weakened. At the time of the Sarajevo assassination, Italy was in a quandary about what she would do in case of a European war. When Cadorna assumed command, he fell straight into this abyss, for he was not kept abreast of the vicissitudes in Italian diplomacy. While Italian politicians wrangled with Allied and Triplice negotiators for territorial compensation, Cadorna remained dangerously unaware of the change in Italian foreign policy. Just a few weeks before Italy was to announce that she was going to war with Austria-Hungary, Cadorna was informed to make the necessary plans for conducting an offensive against the Habsburg Empire. Cadorna, taken completely by surprise and astonished that he was kept in the dark for so long, rightfully exploded ‘What? I knew nothing!’ Much of the military planning to this time had been directed against France. Although exigency plans had been created for a war with Vienna, many changes had to be implemented before the Italian high command could enact any effective strategy against Austria-Hungary.

No one was prepared for the tactical realities of the First World War. Not only did Cadorna have to contend with an army that was materially weak and engaged in a nasty little colonial war, but, in addition, his theatre of operations was arguably the most difficult of the entire war. Hemmed in along the northern frontier with mountains often reaching elevations over 10,000 feet, the Italians were at a severe topographic disadvantage. Any other avenue of approach to the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have to be by sea, an unlikely prospect considering the strained relations that existed between the army and navy. Selecting the extreme north-east sector of the Austro-Italian frontier just north of the Adriatic Sea for his main effort, Cadorna soon found himself in a slugging match with a skilled and determined enemy. Since most of the writings about the influence of modern weapons on tactics were poorly received or simply ignored, Cadorna reacted to the stalemate in a typically First World War fashion: headlong assaults with massive concentrations of artillery and infantry. Although the existing historiography does not cover the matter in detail, it was an Italian characteristic to make up for the deficiencies in weapons and tactics with the blood of the foot soldier. To assuage the popular myths created by the debacle at Caporetto, and by British and American veterans of the Second World War, the Italian infantryman between May 1915 and October 1917 displayed abundant courage and zeal when coming to grips with the Austro-Hungarians. However, Cadorna failed to consider the wellbeing of his main instrument, for rest in the rear areas was almost unheard of in most Italian divisions. The morale of any soldier would be devastated by the rigours of combat without periods of recuperation.

Since Cadorna fought his war from behind the lines, the Italian high command was slow to develop tactical innovations that considered the hostile geography of the Italian front. More often than not, Italian infantrymen had to attack over rocky and rugged surfaces, up slopes averaging between thirty and forty-five degrees, against a well-equipped enemy protected by defences excavated out of solid rock. Much of what the Italians learned tactically was from the Austrians, who were refining tested German operational and tactical practices, or from the French, who were not known at this time to be a source of tactical innovation. A good example of this was the Austrian offensive in the Trentino in May 1916. Using loose formations that used terrain features to open holes in the Italian lines after a tremendous artillery preparation, the Austrians enjoyed some success before the weight of their attack caused the logistic apparatus to break down. Using this information to form infiltration units of his own, Cadorna shifted ample reserves and guns to the Isonzo while the Austrians were preoccupied with the Brusilov offensive on the Eastern Front to capture Gorizia in August 1916. Proving adept at handling large bodies of men over Italy’s less than adequate rail system, Cadorna shifted the brunt of his army and guns to the Isonzo after the abortive Austrian attack on the Asiago plateau. Massing one of the largest artillery concentrations ever to be used on the Italian front, and employing select infantry units at certain concentration points, the Italians captured Gorizia, Mount Sabotino, and carried the western section of the Carso plateau in two weeks, whereas before nearly six months of offensive action failed to secure any of these objectives.

At the beginning of the war, the Italian Army consisted of thirty-five divisions. When Cadorna started his eleventh battle on the Bainsizza plateau in September 1917, he had sixty-five divisions at his disposal. The drain of attritional mountain warfare and rapid growth produced severe problems, such as an acute lack of munitions. Cadorna had to organize, arm, and train over one million men in two years – not an inconsiderable feat for an institution that was not known for its organizational capacity, especially considering that going into the conflict the Italians were still suffering substantial casualties in Africa. It is in this realm where Cadorna did his best work, and if it were not for this progress, the results of the Austro-German offensive in October would have been far worse.

Nearly two years of continual action was not only sapping Italy’s material ability to wage the war, it was also draining her morale. Cadorna, a strict disciplinarian far removed for the realities of trench warfare, failed to allow his soldiers to have any substantial periods of rest and relaxation, and therefore they lost much of their elan. Moreover, the offensive posture of Cadorna’s military operations often forced Italian division and corps commanders to neglect their forward defences. Just after the Italian successes in September on the Bainsizza, Cadorna ordered defences to be strengthened, for the near capitulation of Russia had freed Austrian formations from other duties, and he feared an enemy offensive. Although the Italians had fortified certain areas, mainly in the topographically favourable stretches of terrain around Gorizia and the Carso plateau, the Austro-German army struck on the upper Isonzo, along a lightly defended ridge just south of the small town of Caporetto. The Italians had planned to use a mobile defence, but the speed of the enemy advance caught them completely off guard, and soon the Italian Second Army was in flight, while the Third Army was forced to enact a strategic withdrawal across the Fruili Plains. The enemy offensive forced Cadorna to leave behind much of his heavy equipment and artillery – the accumulation of two years’ hard work. These losses, and the capture of about 300,000 men severely crippled the Italian war effort.

Not having secured the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Army after two years of extreme hardship and losses, Cadorna was sacked and replaced by one of his corps commanders, Armando Diaz. Cadorna’s cold and indifferent attitude toward not only his soldiers, but also toward the politicians had not ingratiated him with any power bloc that might have proved beneficial to him in case of a disaster. Therefore, Cadorna was supposedly kicked upstairs, and was sent to represent Italy on the Supreme Allied War Council. Soon thereafter, an investigation fixed the blame for the debacle squarely on his shoulders, and Cadorna retired in disgrace in December 1918. In all fairness, the Italian government needed a scapegoat, and since Cadorna was no longer the Chief of Staff and had directed the Italian armies since the beginning of the war, he was the logical choice. The government failed to pay attention to Cadorna when he warned that the front-line soldiers were being saturated with anti-war propaganda, which was growing vociferously all over Europe. He should have expected a great deal of criticism for his lack of preparedness when the Central Powers struck; however, the government should have realized that by attaching most of the blame to Cadorna, they had negated a fair record of success along the Isonzo during the first two years of the war.

The reputation of the Italian Army and Cadorna continues to languish. Holger Herwig, for example, recently deprecated him and his Austrian counterpart General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf in the following way: ‘Both ignored terrain and weather. Both underestimated supply. Both stressed the will to fight. Both devised grandiose strategies that bore little relation to ready strength. And both insisted on their own infallibility.’28 However, Cadorna should not be uncritically blamed for the apparent lack of Italian progress during the war. He took an army embroiled in a colonial venture and forged it, under the most trying conditions, into one comparable with other European armies of the era. It is easy to say the Italian Army was bad, and that Cadorna was unimaginative or, as John Keegan puts it, a ‘château general’. However, the Italian Army had to attack in the most inhospitable front of the entire war, and was capable of capturing many key objectives, often when their efforts were hampered by lack of artillery and ammunition. The Austrian defences were exceedingly strong and set in mutually supporting positions across the front, providing Austrian machine gunners and artillery officers with strong positions for enfilade fire. Cadorna had conducted reconnaissance of the front before the war, and knew what his soldiers would have to face while fighting in the mountainous terrain. He was aware that operations on the Italian front would take patience and technical innovation, and was quick to adopt new weapons, such as the trench mortar and the teleferiche railway. The latter was a cable anchored to a base and stretched to the summit of an elevation, on which a cart or basket moved supplies and men to areas where the altitude and slope prohibited road construction. The need for mechanical assistance played an important role in the development of Cadorna’s army. Unfortunately, these gadgets were seen as the answers to tricky tactical and operational questions instead of being incorporated into existing doctrine, or being the catalysts for entirely new procedures. Often when certain divisions formulated new practices, the lack of communication on the administrative level prevented them from being disseminated. This is probably Cadorna’s most glaring fault, and shows just how isolated he was from the various contingents of his own army.

Contending with the rocky rugged terrain and the Austrian positional supremacy should have been an ideal catalyst for tactical innovation. However, the topographical compartmentalization of the front prevented the Italian high command from forming a clear picture of what was working or failing. Still, the Italians implemented some astonishing tactical changes, which were generally a result of learning from the enemy, or from division commanders who assessed certain areas and formed their units according to specific geographic problems. As the first four Isonzo offensives attempted to pierce the Austrian defences, the first just north of Mount Sabotino, the last three on the topographically more conducive Carso plateau, the Italians found it impossible to make any substantial progress against the enemy while using tactics that would not have been out of place on a battlefield during the Napoleonic era or during the American Civil War. This was not just an Italian problem – even the much vaunted Germans went to war in 1914 with tactical formations that were little changed since the victorious campaigns of 1866 and 1870–1. Realizing that they had to contend with perplexing terrain difficulties, and that their methods lacked the finesse to overcome and retain most defensive positions, the Italians began to search for solutions and, unfortunately, looked to the French for tactical answers. Although not as inept as many historians portray it be, the French Army was not exactly the source from which any belligerent would want to borrow military instructions at this stage of the war. The French were also enamoured by the results of the Wars of German Unification, and thought the answer to their military conundrum was to emulate the German model on a larger, more efficient scale. Each nation is a separate and unique entity, and therefore should forge its military accordingly. Therefore the problem with Italy, and indeed much of Europe, was that she should have been trying to create a national force based on her own capabilities and limitations instead of copying a successful yet dated German model. The Italian Army needed to be Italian, not a mere imitation of the German Army whose strength was as much from economic and industrial power as it was from any radical advances in the military arts and sciences.

By the time the Austrians struck in the Trentino, the Italians had received some tactical advice from the French, who were then going through the horrors of Verdun. However, the problem was not that they were receiving procedural assistance from the French, it was that they were usually receiving this help nearly six months after the tactics were first employed. Considering the rigid and ponderous methods prevalent in the Italian Army, it was usually several more months before any of this experience could be translated into military practice. Some procedures would take even longer to employ because of material deficiencies. The result was that the Italians were tactically and operationally behind most of the other major belligerents. A case in point was the massive artillery concentration used against Austrian defences on the Bainsizza. An overwhelming concentration of guns was nearly a constant goal of Allied and Central Power planners since the beginning of the war, the desire increasing after the German attack at Verdun. The attack on Verdun began in February 1916. The battle of the Bainsizza started in August 1917. This was just three months before the Central Powers introduced new tactical methods at Caporetto. Cadorna was methodical, but he often did not push tactical and operational changes fast enough, and hardly had time to use the old methods before he fell victim to a new set of offensive procedures.

Many historians wonder why Cadorna did not use the navy to land combat units in an area where geography would allow them to be employed more effectively. The army and navy never enjoyed a convivial relationship, and therefore could not count on each other to be the most ‘co-operative’ partners. Both were wary of enterprises that would waste resources and leave themselves in the lurch. Cadorna was hesitant to release any of his battalions to make a landing along the eastern coast of the Adriatic, and the navy did not want to risk its capital ships in the same enterprise, for they knew amphibious operations would force a major surface action with the Austrian Navy. Although the Italians had landed approximately 40,000 troops along the north African coast during the war with Turkey in 1910–1, the aftershocks of this campaign still weighed upon the minds of military planners. Moreover, the areas where troops could be landed did not offer better geographic conditions that existed on the Isonzo Front. Italian formations were landed in Albania, and promptly suffered a reverse in the field and had to be evacuated with the loss of much equipment. Another venture, where Italian forces were deployed in Salonika, did little more than isolate a sizeable force. The enterprise held little chance of tactical success, and did not make a strategic contribution until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies late in 1918.

In hindsight, Cadorna seems to be just another commander that falls into the stereotype of a First World War general, an indifferent man who sent his soldiers to die by the thousands, while staying safely behind the front, out of harm’s way. This is only half true. Cadorna was conscious of the heavy losses the Italians were suffering – one and a half million casualties during the war, 460,000 of which were fatalities – if not from a humanitarian viewpoint, from operational realism. He knew that the Italian nation could not go on indefinitely due to its lack of natural resources and economic reserves. He used the only commodity the Italians possessed, a sizeable population base, until better operational and tactical methods could be developed. It was his misfortune that the Central Powers were generally the first to introduce innovative tactical and operational procedures, and just happened to test them in the secondary theatres before employing them on the Western Front.

It is curious that the Italians have been castigated for their debacle at Caporetto, as Cadorna skilfully withdrew his Third Army across the congested Fruili Plains, and even managed to salvage certain portions of the Second Army. Although trying to establish defensive positions on the major waterways in the eastern sector of the plains, he was forced back to the Piave River before he could restore his front. Geography and distance prevented the British or the French from saving the Italians, for by the time Allied troops reached Italy, Cadorna had stabilized the front, but had been fired in the process. Haig finally had to succumb to French pressure for overall direction of the war so that unity of command could re-establish Allied defences on the Western Front.

Cadorna was not totally forgotten after Caporetto. He went on to be the Italian representative on the Supreme Allied War Council, and exhibited an uncanny grasp of military problems. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Cadorna had invaluable experience in handling an army; the second was that he was a well-known theoretical writer about European military affairs, and had dealt academically with many problems concerning coalition warfare before the war. Cadorna’s problem was that he undoubtedly held the wrong post, for he could not deal appropriately with the minutiae of war. His father, the general who had shown some promise in the Seven Weeks’ War, realized his full potential as the Minister of War for the government of Tuscany in 1859. It was in this area where Cadorna showed his optimum potential. Once the politicians confided in him concerning Italy’s diplomatic endeavours, Cadorna followed their policies and worked energetically toward their realization. His realistic mind, although restricting his creativity, never allowed him to entertain fantastic or unrealistic schemes. This aptitude for the diplomatic-military sphere was clearly seen at the Supreme War Council, for he could quickly equate objectives with available means and gauge probable outcomes, not only in a military sense, but in the diplomatic realm as well. This could be a result of having to contend with Italy’s chronic lack of resources while trying to conduct a major war effort – something that he lost sight of during the offensives of 1915, but then addressed in future operations. Therefore, his organizational talents would have been better suited to the war ministry, and were not geared to the frustratingly complex phenomenon of a First World War army command. After the war, Cadorna busied himself with writing a book about the Italian front, much of which was in defence of his actions connected with Caporetto. Falling into relative obscurity, he was somewhat revitalized when Mussolini, ever the astute politician and consummate showman, made Cadorna a Field Marshal in 1924. This ceremony was an empty gesture, doing nothing to vindicate Cadorna’s reputation, which still suffers today from a lack of scholarship and interest. He will never be known as one of the great captains of history, but considering what he did with what he had available, his story deserves better treatment.

Soon the Western Front would be embroiled in a chaotic retreat, and many of the divisions sent to Italy would be recalled. However, with Cadorna fading into the history of the First World War, a new phase of the war emerged in Italy, as British and French contingents arrived to bolster their crippled ally.


The Air Battles Over the Piave

Illustration: Sopwith Camels over Italy in 1918 (image from ‘Sopwith Camel’ by Jon Guttman © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

When the British army occupied the Asiago sector, the original plan had been to attack the Austrians towards the Val Suguna. However, the situation in France caused a postponement, and instead it was the Austrians that took the offensive. Then, as the problem in France caused British troops to be withdrawn from the Italian front on the Piave River, the Camels began flying three-man patrols over both the Piave and Asiago areas to maintain a presence.

Enemy reconnaissance aircraft were constantly over allied positions and the Camels were flying barrage patrols between Fornia and Gallio. It was presumed that while the Austrians were preparing to attack, unknown to the allies they had changed their plan of advance to the Piave. In order to conceal their intentions, they were moving all men and equipment during the hours of darkness.

On the first day of June 45 Squadron lost one of its ace pilots – Earl Hand – to the Austro-Hungarian pilot Frank Linke-Crawford. Hand was on patrol along with Lieutenants Paddy O’Neill and J. P. `Proc’ Huins. Huins had this to say about the action in a letter:

An early morning O. P., 6-7.15 am, over the lines. Paddy had engine trouble and returned to base before we crossed the lines. Hand and myself climbed to 12,000 feet flying east, with me on his starboard side. When some 7-10 miles over a sudden waggling of wings by Hand, indicated he had spotted some E. A. well below us. Down he went in a good dive and I followed on, flattening out after the dive. Hand immediately closed in combat with a black machine with a large camouflaged letter `L’ on the top of the centre section of his machine.

I was about 100 yards away and as I hurried on a parallel course, Hand turned out of the tight circle in which he and the E. A. was involved, and I saw flames come from Hand’s main tank behind his back. The pilot of the `L’ machine was about 200 yards away. I turned towards him and we came head-on; he opened fire first and a second later I replied – a two-second burst but then both [my] guns jammed. I held my head-on approach and decided to fly for a collision. At the last moment when it seemed certain we would collide the E. A. went under, and he passed beneath me. I immediately did a steep left turn and came round inside the E. A., which was turning left. I finished some ten yards or less on his tail, the pilot looking over his left shoulder, then he half-rolled and went down vertically. I held my height as the E. A. flattened out at tree-top level, and flying `on the carpet’ went east.

I realised my engine was running rough as my Camel had been damaged in the encounter. The leading edge of my wings were torn and flapping in the breeze, the engine damaged, and the windmill pump on the right centre section strut had been shot away. I turned on to the gravity tank and limped back to our side of the lines, taking a last look at Hand’s burning machine.

Earl Hand, from Ontario, was lucky to survive the encounter, crashing in flames. Although he suffered some burns, he got clear of the wreckage and soon found himself taken prisoner. He had gained five victories over France and Italy, and later received the DFC. `Proc’ Huins later became a doctor and spent a lot of time studying aviation medicine, for which he was made an OBE and received the Air Force Cross and Bar.

Two casualties in early June were Second Lieutenant A. F. Bartlett of 66 Squadron (B7353) taken prisoner on the 6th, and Lieutenant G. D. McLeod of 28 Squadron (B2316) wounded and captured on the 8th. He lingered until he succumbed to his injuries on 22 January 1919.

From 10 June 1918, Camels again began making their barrage patrols between Fornia and Gallio in order to restrict Austrian air reconnaissance over these areas; also what were termed `long patrols’ which were flown some 5 miles into enemy territory between Casotto and Cismon. Meanwhile, British and Italian air reconnaissance reports and photographs finally revealed that the Austrians were planning to attack the Piave sector. Austrian intentions, however, were not clear until a heavy bombardment began at 0300 hours on the 15th from the Adriatic coast to Astico. The Austrians also attacked Italian positions on the Piave, French positions on Mount Grappa and the remaining British forces on the Asiago plateau.

Low mist prevented any real air operations against the enemy offensive, especially over these mountainous regions. However, a patrol led by Spike Howell of 45 Squadron did manage to spot early signs of the attack. Austrian troops were crossing the Piave under cover of smoke screens, in boats and by erecting pontoon bridges. No. 45 Squadron then began sending out Camels in threes, dropping 20lb Cooper bombs on both these types of targets. The Camels then came in at low level to machine-gun targets of opportunity, causing many casualties among the assaulting soldiery. These attacks continued as the weather improved and in total, 45 Squadron alone flew thirty-five sorties dropping 112 x 20lb bombs plus another twenty bombs on Asiago targets. This was followed by an all-out attack by Camels and Bristol fighters of `Z’ Flight, the latter recently formed from C Flight of 34 Squadron, to help with recce sorties and based at Istrana. (In July it would become 139 Squadron.) Italian fighters and bombers also added to the Austrians’ discomfort.

In all, during the initial assault by the Austrians, the RAF dropped 350 x 20lb bombs on the crossings. After dark, the Austrians began rebuilding destroyed or damaged pontoon bridges and also managed to get troops across in boats under cover of darkness. As dawn broke on the second day, ground mist again hampered early attempts by the RAF to engage them but as this began to lift around 0900, the Camels were once more causing mayhem.

Austrian and German aircraft were in evidence above these crossings, and British pilots had some success. On the 15th 28 Squadron claimed three Albatros fighters and two balloons, while 66, under Carpenter, shot down three: two Albatros D. Vs and a Brandenburg two-seater. In the meantime, 45 Squadron bagged four two- seaters, including one by the CO, Major A. M. Vaucour: a DFW in flames. Lieutenant S. W. Ellison was wounded on the 16th (B5204), later dying of his wounds. By the 16th the Austrians were in retreat.

On the 17th low cloud and rain grounded all aircraft, but the weather became the ultimate ruin of the Austrian offensive. These rains poured tons of water down from the mountains and into the river, sweeping away bridges and upsetting boats as the torrent raged. By 18 June only two bridges remained usable but it was the beginning of the end for the Austrians. The Italians now began a counter-attack and by the 19th the Austrians were in full retreat. Better weather allowed Camels to get into the action, 45 Squadron claiming eight enemy aircraft, two of these by Howell and three by Lieutenant J. H. Dewhirst. Bunny Vaucour destroyed another two-seater.

Cooper of 28 had downed one enemy machine on the 18th, while McEwen and Williams scored on the 19th; McEwen with one Berg fighter in flames and another `ooc’, Voss Williams a D. V crashed. On the 19th Lieutenant S. M. Robins of 28 was brought down by AA fire to become a prisoner (Camel D9310 `D’).

A serious loss to Britain’s Italian ally was that of Maggiore Francesco Baracca, their leading air ace with thirty-four victories. He had flown out on a ground strafing sortie on the 19th and failed to return. He was 30 years of age and had claimed his last two victories on 15 June.

At around 0900 hours on 21 June, Barker, Apps and Birks claimed three Albatros D. IIIs near Motta air base, located 10 miles east of the Piave. Barker and Birks had been flying together for some time, with Birks acting as his wingman; in fact, there had been nearly forty such flights and on this date, Gerry Birks made his twelfth and last claim. In the event it seems that only one Albatros was actually destroyed, with Oberleutnant F. Dechant of Flik 51J in 153.88 being killed. Barker had spotted a number of Austrian fighters taking off from Motta and decided to climb higher and to the north-east, biding his time till the hostiles were near Oderzo, closer to the front lines. Barker took his two partners in an arc so that the morning sun was behind them and then dived. Barker’s fire sent one opponent down in a spin and then it broke up. Birks and `Mable’ Apps each sent opponents spinning earthwards. On the 22nd Eycott-Martin flamed a Brandenburg C-type over Arsie.

Gerry Birks had flown a total of sixty-six patrols over Italy by the 24th and was pretty tired, so was rested. It was not long before he was on a ship sailing home to Canada. He went on to live to the age of 96, although he never flew again. A banker, he married twice, had several children and died in Toronto in May 1991. Apart from Josef Kiss, Birks had also downed another Austrian ace, Oberleutnant Karl Patzelt on 4 May 1918, as mentioned earlier.

By the 24th, the Austrians had fallen back to their original positions at the start of the offensive, having incurred serious losses including some 20,000 men taken prisoner, those who had been unable to get back across the Piave. The RAF, especially the Camel squadrons, had played a significant part in this victory.

Combats continued to be had by all three Camel squadrons during the rest of June and into July. Cliff McEwen racked up eleven victories in these two months, bringing his score to twenty-four. Seven of these he scored flying D8112 but following one of these in this machine on 1 July, a Berg Scout, he crashed into trees near Isola di Cartura and was badly shaken. However, he was awarded the DFC, adding this to his earlier MC. He also received the Italian Bronze Medal. In the Second World War he commanded No. 6 (Canadian) Bomber Group in England from January 1944. He died in Toronto in 1967.

Lieutenant McEvoy, in D8235 `T’, shot down a Pfalz Scout north-west of Asiago on 4 July and ten days later, in this same machine, he was forced to crash-land in a marsh following another combat. He was unhurt.

No. 28 Squadron lost Lieutenant A. R. Strang on 13 July (D8209) on a morning patrol. He was attacking a two-seater with two other pilots and although the enemy machine was claimed as destroyed, Strang sharing the kill with Joe Mackereth and Captain J. E. Hallonquist, he was missing after the fight, ending up as a prisoner.


On 3 July, the RAF’s `Z’ Flight became 139 Squadron and command of it was given to Will Barker in mid-July. It was equipped with the BF2b – Bristol Fighter – a fighting machine that had already proved itself on the Western Front. Manned by an aggressive pilot and a competent observer/gunner, the `Brisfit’ was a formidable adversary for the enemy. Barker by this time had achieved thirty-eight victories. One amazing concession already given was to be allowed once again: that he could take his beloved Camel B6313 with him, despite his command flying two-seater Bristols. By this stage the two front wing struts of his Camel had white notches painted on them, one for each victory. When his Italian tour of duty ended in September, there would be forty-six notches. Incredibly he had scored all these victories in this aircraft, operating with it in France and Italy for almost a year. Some years ago this author saw this Camel’s log book, retained in the Imperial War Museum, London.

What Barker thought of this posting can only be imagined, but at least he could continue flying his beloved Camel. Before mid-September, he added a further seven victories to his score and was then posted back to England. As is well known, he managed to wangle a posting back to France, arguing that he needed to be brought `up to speed’ on operations over France, and went to 201 Squadron, flying the new Sopwith Snipes.

On 27 October he fought a number of enemy aircraft in a one-man scrap, and although badly wounded he was credited with four victories before being forced to crash-land. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross.


By far the most serious loss to the Camel squadrons in Italy was the death of 45 Squadron’s CO, Major Awdry Morris Vaucour MC & Bar, DFC and the Italian Silver Medal for Military Valour (Medaglia d’Argento al Valore Militare). His penchant for often flying over the front on his own finally cost him his life.

On 16 July he was flying Camel D8102, keeping an eye out for his squadron’s patrols across the front lines. There are two versions of what happened; the British one believing that Vaucour, having spotted an aircraft and realizing that it was Italian, had tried to reassure its pilot he was friendly by flying in front so that the pilot could recognize the British roundels. However, the Italian pilot reported seeing an aircraft heading towards him, and being at around 0900 hours, the low sun was blinding him. He believed he could see black crosses on it and as it passed, he turned and dived to the attack, firing as he came within range.

Too late, he saw that it was a British machine but his fire had already hit Vaucour, the wounded pilot diving some distance before the Camel began to disintegrate, the wreckage falling near Monastier di Treviso. The Italian pilot was Lieutenant Alberto Moresco in a Hanriot scout of the 78ª Squadriglia. Bunny Vaucour was 28 years old, the son of a vicar, born in Topcliffe, Yorkshire. He had claimed five victories over Italy plus three more in France.

Gordon Apps of 66 Squadron was wounded by AA fire over Belluno in B7358 on the 17th. He had gained his tenth and final victory before this event, sharing an LVG two-seater destroyed with Lieutenant A. E. Baker. Apps was later awarded the DFC.

On 27 July, Major J. A. H. Crook MC arrived from England and took command of 45 Squadron. Amazing as it sounds, Joe Crook was only 21 years of age and had won his MC in 1916, aged just 18, on two-seater corps aircraft. One might have expected one of the experienced Camel pilots in Italy to have been promoted to this command.

The Austro-Hungarians also lost one of their leading pilots on 31 July. Oberleutnant Frank Linke-Crawford had downed his 29th victory two days earlier, a BF2b of 139 Squadron. In recent weeks he had also claimed four Camels, with both 28 and 45 Squadrons suffering losses. Flying a Berg D. I, he tangled with 45 Squadron and had to spin down out of trouble and damaged, but then ran into two Italian fighters. Unable to manoeuvre properly, he fell to the guns of Corporal Aldo Astolfi of the 81ª Squadriglia, the latter’s first and only combat success.

Upon hearing that Linke-Crawford had been killed, RAF HQ quickly tried to establish whether an RAF pilot had got him and soon discovered that 45 Squadron had been in action that morning, also that Lieutenant Jack Cottle had claimed a victory. At first it was thought that Cottle should be credited; indeed, he was told so by Colonel Joubert de la Ferté who had telephoned 45 Squadron asking that Cottle should come to his HQ. In his own recollections, Cottle said that the machine he shot down was a new type with red and green stripes along its fuselage and a large octagonal `C’. Cottle, along with Charles Catto and Francis Bowles, had been in a scrap with enemy fighters and the latter two pilots confirmed seeing Cottle’s opponent going down. In 45’s game book Cottle’s record page has even had reference to Linke-Crawford being the victim, the fighter falling in pieces over Fontane.

However, other evidence seems to indicate that Cottle had shot down a Phönix D. I flown by Feldwebel J. Acs of Flik 60J. The difficulty is that Acs appears to have made a forced landing, his machine badly damaged, so not falling to pieces in the air. The Phönix was not a new type at the front, and photos of Linke-Crawford’s machine – a Berg, serial number 115.32 – show a large `L’ on the fuselage. The Italian pilot had reported his victim crashing in flames and he had received confirmation from a nearby artillery observation post. Other pictures show that Flik 60J carried octagonal letters on their machines, such as Kurt Gruber’s `G’.

Linke-Crawford was in fact engaged by Italian Hanriots and shot down in flames after a long combat with 81ª Squadriglia, Corporal Aldo Astolfi claiming his first and only victory as stated above.


August 1918 saw a continuation of the fighting in the air. No. 45 Squadron made a total of twenty-two claims, sixteen noted as destroyed. No. 66 Squadron also put in claims for twenty-two, all but one as being destroyed. No. 28 Squadron only claimed four, three being destroyed. All suffered losses.

No. 45 Squadron lost Lieutenant A. L. Haines DFC on the 10th. Alf Haines came from Evesham, Worcs, a pre-war farmer, and two victories on 29 July had brought his score to six. His DFC was announced after his death. He was very unlucky to be hit by an anti-aircraft shell while flying at 10,000ft, falling in no man’s land from where enemy troops carried his body to the British lines under a white flag.

The other two losses were both results of flying accidents, with Captain W. C. Hilborn DFC losing his life. Canadian Bill Hilborn had attained seven victories and again his DFC was announced after his death on 16 August. He had flown with 66, 28 and finally as a flight commander in 45 two days prior to his crash, although he lingered on for ten days before dying.

No. 28 Squadron only suffered one loss in August with Lieutenant S. Yates being injured in a crash, but 66 Squadron had three casualties. On the 5th, Lieutenant G. C. Easton (B6354) was lost on a patrol and reported killed. Lieutenant E. P. O’Connor- Glynn died following a flying accident on the 17th in B2433, while Captain J. Mackereth (E1496) failed to return on the 31st. However, John Mackereth from Essex survived as a prisoner. Most of his time in Italy had been spent with 28 Squadron until being made a flight commander with 66. However, his tour with them did not last long, for while attacking and destroying a balloon he was hit in the leg by ground fire, crashed and was taken captive. He had gained seven victories.

Another successful 66 Squadron pilot was C. M. Maud from Leeds, formerly with the Royal Field Artillery. Charles Maud celebrated his 22nd birthday on the day the RAF was formed: 1 April 1918. He had been with 66 since March but finally got into his stride during May, with five victories that month. By 23 August he had raised this to ten and number eleven came on 7 October. He was awarded the DFC and the Italian Croce di Guerra.

Air fighting diminished during September, although patrols were still flown across the Asiago front. RAF Intelligence Reports indicated to RAF HQ that the Austro- Hungarian Air Corps were in poor shape, and bad weather over northern Italy did not help either side. Following the massive German offensive in France, it was thought at one stage that much of the British force in Italy might need to return to the Western Front and indeed, nine army battalions were sent during the summer.

Also going back to France was 45 Squadron, and they fought their last air actions on 31 August. In early September the squadron began to dismantle its aircraft and prepare to leave. Once they returned they were attached to Hugh Trenchard’s Independent Force, tasked with bombing French and German strategic targets. Although the squadron was there to give protection, its fighters saw little action until the last weeks of the war, mainly against German reconnaissance aircraft.

The pilots of 28 Squadron managed to get into several combats, but it was mostly new pilots who began to claw down the odd victim or two. Stan Stanger and Cliff McEwen both added to their already impressive scores as the war over Italy gradually came to an end. Stanger, from Montreal, was a flight commander with 28 after initially being with 66. His last three victories in September and October brought his score to thirteen, and he added the DFC to his earlier MC. McEwen, from Manitoba, brought his score to twenty-seven during the last weeks of the war, and had also been awarded the MC and DFC. One of his claims, for an Albatros D. III on 18 February 1918, was only credited as an `ooc’ victory, but some years later the wreckage was discovered in the mountains which raised his credit to `destroyed’.

No. 66 Squadron, on the other hand, got into numerous combats and during September and October gained an impressive thirty-one claims. Among these pilots was Lieutenant H. K. Goode.

Harry King Goode, from Handsworth and formerly a Royal Engineer, had achieved seven victories by August 1918, but in the last weeks he downed seven more, the last six being kite balloons. One of these fell on 29 October, after which he attacked the enemy airfield at South Gioncomo, claiming three enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground. He ended the war with the DFC and then the DSO. He remained in the RAF after the war, becoming a group captain, but was killed in a flying accident, as a passenger, in August 1942.


With the war on the Western Front going well, it was hoped that in northern Italy the Austro-Hungarian forces would also soon be defeated. One British division remained on the Asiago plateau, but the other two had joined up with the American and French units who were supporting the Italians on the Piave front. To allay suspicions, British soldiers took to wearing Italian uniforms, while all flying operations were kept to the Asiago front.

The opening push began on 4 and 5 October with two air-raids on Austrian advanced training schools. Twenty-three Camels from 28 and 66 attacked Campoformido with high-explosive and phosphorus bombs, and a few enemy machines that tried to interfere were engaged, one being claimed by Stanger and McEwen. The next day Egna in the Adige Valley received attention from twenty- two Camels. No. 28 Squadron had two pilots shot down on the 4th – Lieutenant J. H. R. Bryant killed in B5638 and Lieutenant A. Latimer killed in D8244 – while Lieutenant R. H. Foss shot down an LVG two-seater on the 5th. No. 28 Squadron also had a pilot wounded on the 5th: Second Lieutenant C. S. Styles in E1581.

On the 7th Oberleutnant Ludwig Hautzmeyer of Flik 61J shot down Camel D8215 of 66 Squadron flown by Lieutenant W. J. Courtney, his sixth victory, and Oberleutnant Franz Peter of Flik 3J downed another (E1498) flown by Second Lieutenant G. R. Leighton, a 26-year-old Scot from Glasgow, also his sixth victory. Further operations were begun on 23 October, followed by more decisive action on the 27th. Allied troops crossed the Piave, attacked by the Austrians from the air, while Camels went for the enemy’s balloon lines, three being shot down by 66 Squadron. Enemy forces, once allied soldiers had got across the river, were in retreat.

Augustus Paget from Wiltshire gained all his six victories in these last weeks in Italy with 66 Squadron and was awarded the DFC. However, his luck ran out on 30 October, being brought down and killed by ground fire.

Austrian forces tried to counter the offensive on the 29th but they were finally broken, with low-flying Camels constantly ground-strafing and bombing Austrian ground forces. Over the next few days much carnage was done to the enemy troops from the air, as the allied soldiers constantly pushed forward. The Armistice in Italy finally came into effect on 4 November 1918.

The Red Sea 1940–41

The Red Sea, 1940–1941

Long months of torture in the blazing heat and incredible humidity of Massawa had left us apathetic and drained of hope of escape.

—Edward Ellsberg, No Banners No Bugles

Italy’s East African possessions, particularly its Red Sea base at Massawa, were situated strategically astride the sea route to Suez. With the Sicilian Channel closed to normal transit, Italy theoretically possessed the ability to block maritime access to Egypt.

Between 1935 and 1940 Italy’s planners envisioned the construction of an oceanic fleet that, in its most realistic version, would have consisted of two cruisers, eight destroyers, and twelve submarines, all fitted for tropical service and supported by a network of bases along Italian Somaliland’s Indian Ocean coast. However, this Flotta d’evasione proved more than Rome could afford. Thus, Rear Admiral Carlo Balsamo, who commanded Italy’s East African naval squadron, deployed eight modern submarines, seven middle-aged destroyers, two old torpedo boats, five World War I–era MAS boats, and a large colonial sloop, all concentrated at Massawa. In Supermarina’s view, the squadron’s limited stocks of fuel and ammunition restricted its role to one of survival and sea denial, relying mainly upon the submarines, for the duration of a six-month war.

Great Britain intercepted Italy’s 19 May orders for the “immediate and secret mobilization of the army and air force in east Africa,” whereupon the Royal Navy reinforced its Rea Sea Squadron, which consisted of the Dominion light cruisers Leander and Hobart, the old antiaircraft cruiser Carlisle, three sloops, and four ships of the 28th Destroyer Flotilla. This force was tasked with preventing Italian reinforcements, engaging the Massawa squadron, blockading the coast of Italian Somaliland, and protecting the shipping lanes to Suez and Aden.

On 10 June Italy’s Red Sea submarines occupied, or were on their way to, their patrol stations, but their forewarned enemy had already halted all mercantile shipping to the Red Sea on 24 May. They enjoyed only one success, when Galilei sank the Norwegian tanker James Stove (8,215 GRT) on 16 June. In exchange the Italians lost four boats. Crew poisoning caused by the release of methyl chloride, used as a cheap substitute for freon in the air-conditioning system (a defect that inadequate testing and training under realistic battle conditions failed to reveal), led to the stranding and wrecking of Macallé on 15 June. Galilei attempted to fight it out on the surface with the 650-ton trawler Moonstone on 19 June, but two well-aimed shells from the auxiliary’s 4-inch gun killed Galilei’s captain and all the officers except a midshipman. A British boarding party captured the submarine and a set of operational orders. These enabled the sloop Falmouth to track down and sink Galvani in the Persian Gulf on 24 June. The same intelligence led to the interception of Torricelli, the fourth Red Sea submarine lost in the war’s first fortnight.

Destroyers Kandahar, Kingston, and Khartoum, along with sloops Shoreham and Indus, intercepted Torricelli north of Perim Island, at the entrance to the Red Sea, at 0418 on 23 June. The Italian submarine, initially seeing only one sloop, and considering her damage and the clear waters that made a submerged boat easy to track, elected to run on the surface for the Italian shore batteries at Assab. In the ensuring fight, Torricelli, firing her deck gun, almost hit Shoreham, which reported “two shells falling close ahead.” Then the three destroyers appeared and closed rapidly.

Kingston opened fire with her forward guns at 0536. Torricelli, trailing a wide ribbon of oil, launched four torpedoes back at the destroyer, but their wakes were clearly visible in the calm sea and Kingston easily evaded. At first the British tried to clear the submarine’s decks, to permit a boarding attempt. However, Kingston’s 40-mm shells struck one of her own antennas and wounded eight crewmen. After that the destroyers shot to sink, but they had to expend nearly seven hundred 4.7-inch rounds before a shell finally wrecked Torricelli’s forward bow planes at 0605 and flooded the torpedo room. The submarine sank at 0624.

After rescue operations Khartoum, with prisoners embarked, set course for Perim while the other ships headed for Aden to refuel. At 1150 a torpedo in Khartoum’s aft quintuple mount suddenly exploded, igniting a huge fire in the after lobby. The crew could not control the conflagration, and Khartoum ran for Perim Harbor, seven miles distant. There her men (and the prisoners) abandoned ship, swimming for their lives. At 1245, no. 3 magazine blew up, rendering the destroyer a total loss.

Red Sea Convoys

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

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

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

Australian sloop HMAS Yarra

Italian destroyer Pantera

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

Conditions: Bright moon, calm sea

Allied ships—

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

BN7: thirty-two merchant ships and tankers

Italian ships—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attack on Convoy BN14, 3 February 1941

Conditions: n/a

Allied ships—

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

Convoy BN14: thirty-nine freighters

Italian ships—

DD: Pantera, Tigre, Sauro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cavour Class

Conte di Cavour in early 1916 a few months after commissioning. Note the small false bow wave to give the impression of greater speed.

Conte di Cavour in Taranto’s Mar Piccolo in 1938, as rebuilt between 1933 and 1937.

The first Italian dreadnought was the Dante Alighieri, launched in 1909 by the Royal Naval Yard of Castellammare di Stabia (Naples) and commissioned on 15 January 1913. Although Italy was quite late in commissioning all-big-gun ships (as already envisaged by the Italian naval engineer Vittorio Cuniberti in the 1903 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships) the Dante Alighieri incorporated many ‘firsts’ on her appearance on the international naval scene. She was the first Italian battleship, and one of the first in the world, armed with triple large-calibre (12in) turrets, and the first with some of her medium-calibre guns mounted in turrets; she was also the first Italian battleship with four screws.

The good performance of the Dante Alighieri prompted the Regia Marina to plan and build the three ships of the Cavour class (Conte di Cavour, Giulio Cesare and Leonardo da Vinci), laid down in 1910, launched in 1911 and commissioned between 1914 and 1916. As built, these ships displaced 24,300 tons full load and were armed with thirteen 12in/46 guns, three in triple turrets (’A’, ‘Q’ and ‘Y’), and two in twin superimposed turrets (‘B’ and ‘X’); secondary armament was eighteen 4.7in/50 guns in casemates. The ships had a rather ‘classical’ appearance, with a long forecastle extending up to the barbette of ‘X’ turret, small superstructures, two tall funnels and two tripod masts. The Parsons geared turbines of the four-shaft plant received steam from twenty boilers (twenty-four aboard Da Vinci) and the maximum speed was 22 knots, with an endurance of 4,800nm at 10 knots.

Leonardo da Vinci was the only ship of the class lost during the war, sunk in an explosion at Taranto on 2 August 1916 that was blamed on sabotage; she was refloated in 1919 and despite initial plans to rebuild her with her midships turret removed, she was sold for scrap in March 1923.

The Cavour and Cesare remained in service in their original configuration until early 1933, the only structural change being the re-positioning of the fore mast in front of the forward funnel in the early 1920s. In October 1933 they were taken in hand by CRDA at Trieste and Cantieri del Tirreno at Genoa respectively, for a complete reconstruction based on the design drawn up in the early 1930s, by Col. Francesco Rotundi of the Genio Navale (Naval Engineering Corps).

The fore part of the hull was completely rebuilt and lengthened, with a new raked ‘oceanic’ bow built around the former ram bow; the stern remained almost unchanged, and a ‘Pugliese’ underwater protection system (based on two cylinders placed inside each side of the hull, designed to absorb the energy of underwater explosions by predetermined deformation) was fitted. A new 75,000hp powerplant (which in fact delivered more than 90,000hp on trials) was fitted, with eight boilers, two geared turbines and two shafts. Speed was thus increased to 26/27 knots. The superstructure was completely rebuilt, with a conning tower similar to that of the Montecuccoli class light cruisers, two funnels grouped amidships and a tripod mast aft of the funnels.

Because of the new arrangement of the propulsion plant, ‘Q’ turret amidships was removed, and the ten guns of the remaining four turrets were re-bored to 12.6in, the barrels’ length in calibres decreasing correspondingly to 43.8. The development of new large-calibre guns would have been impossible (and uneconomic) in the short term, and the now re-bored guns could fire a heavier and more powerful projectile, although there was the problem of increased salvo dispersion. Secondary armament consisted of twelve 4.7in/50 guns in six fully-enclosed twin turrets and eight 3.9in/47 guns in four twin mounts.

Both ships took part in the Battle of Punta Stilo, during which Cesare was hit by a 15in shell from HMS Warspite: damage was not extensive, and after repairs lasting a few weeks she was back in service. Cesare took part in other surface actions and convoy operations until spring 1942, when she was placed in reserve at Taranto; later, her homeport shifted to Pola, where she served as a training ship and – after the Armistice – she was decommissioned at the Taranto Dockyard until the end of the war.

The Cavour was damaged by a torpedo during the air attack on Taranto on the night of 11 November 1940: she was not beached in time and sank in shallow water, leaving only the superstructure visible the next morning. She was refloated after a long and expensive operation and at the end of 1941 she was able to proceed to Trieste, where she was scheduled to be repaired and modernised again: in particular, the project envisaged the replacement of the old 4.7in and 3.9in guns with new 5.3in dual-purpose guns and 65mm/64 AA guns. The repairs were finally suspended in June 1943 and, after the Armistice, the Cavour was captured by the Germans who began to dismantle her. She capsized and sank on 23 February 1945 after an Allied air raid on Trieste, and the hulk, which had been refloated soon after the end of the war, was scrapped in 1946.

The Cesare was transferred to the Soviet Union in 1949 as part of the war reparations paid by Italy and was renamed Novorossiisk; she sank on 29 October 1955, after hitting a German wartime mine while anchored just off Sevastopol. Her sinking was quite similar to that of Cavour at Taranto in November 1940: in both cases, misguided rescue attempts combined with led to the loss of the ships. insufficient hull strength and internal subdivision.

Displacement (tons): 26,140/29,100

Dimensions (m): 186.4 overall, 168.9 pp, 28.6 max. beam, 10.4 max. draught.

Machinery: 8 boilers and 2 turbines, 75,000hp (over 93,000hp on trials)

Speed (kts): 26 (Cavour 28.0 and Cesare 28.2 on trials).

Endurance (nm/kts): 5,200–5,400/18,1,700/26: fuel 2,500 tons.

Armour (mm): 250 (waterline); 135 (main deck); 260 (conning tower); 280 (main turrets); 120 (secondary turrets).

Armament: Ten 12.6in/44 (2 × III, 2 × II); twelve 4.7in/50 (6 × II); eight 3.9in/47 AA (4 × II); eight 37mm/54 light AA guns (4 × II); sixteen 20mm/65 cannon (8 × II, Cesare from 1941).

Complement: 1,260 (60)

Civitate 1053 – The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy

Battle of Civitate, 18 June 1053, in which the Norman conquerors of southern Italy, under the Count of Apulia, defeated an army twice their strength fighting on behalf of Pope Leo IX. The Papal army consisted of Swabian-German, Italian, and Lombard south Italian troops, led by Duke Gerard of Lorraine and Prince Rudolf of Benevento.

Initial dispositions: (A) Camp of Papal forces; (B) Pope Leo IX in town of Civitate; (C) Swabians in extended position on Papal right flank; (D) Italians and Lombard cavalry and infantry under Prince Rudolf, on Papal left flank; (E) Forces under Richard of Aversa on Norman right flank; (F) Forces under Count of Apulia in Norman centre; (G) Forces under Robert Guiscard, supported by ‘Slavic’ infantry, on Norman left.

Movements: (1) Normans under Richard of Aversa attack Italians and Lombards; (2) Normans under Count of Apulia clash with Swabians on top of small hill, and are forced back; (3) Italians and Lombards flee; (4) Normans under Robert Guiscard come to assist Humphrey of Hauteville; (5) Normans under Richard of Aversa strike Swabians in flank and rear, resulting in their defeat.

The Normans began arriving in southern Italy in 1017 to serve as mercenaries, both to protect coastal towns against Arab pirates, and also to help local Lombard princes in their continuing attempts to over- throw their Byzantine overlords.

Norman chroniclers put a positive spin on their arrival, claiming they had turned up as pilgrims the previous year at the shrine at Monte Gargano. As the story goes, during their stay the pilgrims learned of the Lombard princes’ need for experienced soldiers.

A far more likely course of events is that Pope Benedict VIII invited the Normans to the region to help him counter Byzantine power. 

The disparate accounts converge on one key point: the first mercenaries to arrive met with Melo of Bari, a Lombard rebel who had led a failed rebellion in 1009 in Apulia. Living in exile in Salerno, Melo still hoped the Lombards would supplant the Greeks as rulers of Apulia and Calabria – the Byzantine province known as the `Catepanate of Italy’.

Sandwiched between the vast Holy Roman Empire to the north and the far-flung Byzantine Empire to the east was a jumble of small Italo-Lombard states. The principalities of Salerno, Capua, and Benevento were all ruled by relatively weak Lombard princes.

A further complication was that the seaport republics of Amalfi, Gaeta, and Naples, once principalities that recognised the Byzantine Emperor as suzerain, had, by the early 11th century, achieved independence (though they retained strong commercial ties with the Byzantine Empire).


The Normans entered a power vacuum. The Byzantine grip on southern Italy was loosening as a result of more urgent military matters else- where. Few Byzantine military units remained in the Catepanate at the turn of the 11th century.

Thus, it fell to the Lombard population of southern Italy to raise militias for their own protection. The creation of these militias fuelled the fire in the belly of Lombard rebels seeking to throw off the Byzantine yoke and establish self-rule. Melo was the most prominent of these firebrands.

Realising what was at stake, the Greeks mustered sufficient military resources to crush a Norman-Lombard rebel army at Cannae in October 1018.

During the next three decades, Norman mercenaries poured into southern Italy, where they found employment, ironically, with both the Lombard princes and the Catapan (governor) of the Catepanate of Italy. Lombard princes and Apulian rebels hired Norman bands to sup- port their insurrections in Apulia; at the same time, the Catapan hired Normans to garrison Byzantine strongholds on the Apulian border.

The Normans were Europe’s premier feudal conquerors. King of Western Francia Charles III had signed a treaty in the early 10th century allowing Vikings to settle in Neustria if they furnished protection against further waves of Norsemen. The region along the English Channel north-west of Paris eventually became known as `Normandy’, a derivation from the Old French word for `northmen’.

Like their Norse ancestors, the Normans had good and bad traits. On the one hand, they were confident, ambitious, and quick-witted. On the other, they were selfish, cunning, and greedy.

They embraced the feudal system characteristic of north-western Europe by which a vassal paid homage to his lord. They excelled at mounted warfare, and they built castles in conquered territory to secure their conquests.


A new Pope assumed control of the Holy See in 1049. His intervention in the politics of southern Italy had a profound influence on the course of events in the region.

Appointed Pope by Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, Bishop Bruno of Toul came from an aristocratic German family. He had military experience, having led an army during one of Conrad II’s military campaigns in Italy. He came to the Papacy at a time when the lower classes of the Lombard principalities were weary of the Normans’ unrestrained plundering of the countryside.

By the close of the 1040s, the Normans had established a secure foothold in southern Italy. They were striving – by means of the territories bestowed on them in return for service, and marriage into the Lombard aristocracy – to become legitimate feudal lords in the region.

Norman power was centred in three areas, each controlled by a gifted mercenary captain.

One was Richard Drengot. He had arrived in the region in 1046 with 40 mounted men. Richard was a nephew of Count Rainulf of Aversa, who had emerged as the first great captain of the Norman immigration. Prince Sergius of Naples had bestowed the Aversa fief on Rainulf in 1030 for services rendered. Appointed regent for Rainult’s infant son on the count’s death in 1048, Richard took over the fief on the infant’s mysterious death the following year.

Another leading Norman was Drogo de Hauteville, the second son of minor Norman baron Tancred de Hauteville. Three of Tancred’s sons by his first wife – William, Drogo, and Humphrey – had arrived in southern Italy in 1035 seeking their fortunes.

After his eldest brother William died in 1046, Drogo succeeded him as commander of a Norman band based at the Apennine stronghold of Melfi on the Apulian border. Emperor Henry III bestowed on Drogo the title of `Duke and Master of all Italy and Count of all the Normans of Apulia and Calabria’ in 1047. These areas were still controlled by the Greeks, so Drogo or his heirs would have to conquer them first.

The third Norman commander was Robert de Hauteville. He was the eldest of Tancred de Hauteville’s seven sons by his second wife. Robert arrived in the region in 1035. He eventually became known as Robert `Guiscard’, his surname being a derivation of the Old French word viscart, meaning `cunning’ or `resourceful’.

In 1049, Drogo appointed Robert to command a Norman band based in Calabria, a much poorer region than Apulia. Robert subsequently established his base at San Marco Argentano.


Following his selection by a great council held at Worms in 1048, Pope Leo IX was consecrated in Rome in January 1049. Later that year, he undertook a tour of southern Italy to assess the political situation first-hand.

The red-haired Alsatian, who looked as much soldier as future saint, heard nothing but bad things about the Normans from the local peoples of southern Italy. The new Pope was deeply disturbed by the Normans’ fondness for using strong-arm tactics against innocent people.

As routine practice, the Normans stole food and plough teams. They also destroyed vines and olive trees as a way of punishing those who resisted them. Leo travelled to Germany in the winter of 1050 to discuss with Emperor Henry III the possibility of war to exorcise the pest.

On his return, in early 1051, Leo visited the Principality of Benevento, which had tradition- ally been a papal fief, to meet Drogo. The Norman leader promised the Pope he would exercise greater control over his troops.

Drogo had little time to act on his promise, however, because he was assassinated by a Lombard on 10 August 1051. The Melfi-based Normans would eventually appoint Humphrey de Hauteville to lead them.

Leo, meantime, decided that he had no choice but to take up arms against the Normans in an effort to protect the people of Benevento. The Pope appealed to Henry III, but the Emperor declined to send troops. Leo then appealed to the princes and barons of southern Italy. He also received an offer of support from Argyrus, the Lombard Catapan of the Catepanate.

In the winter of 1052, Leo returned once more to Germany to request troops from Henry III. This time, Henry obliged, and an army began marching south. But one of the Emperor’s key advisers – a rival of the Pope’s, the Bavarian Bishop Gebhard of Eichstatt – persuaded him to recall the army before it had crossed the Alps.

Leo then appealed to his chancellor, Frederick of Lorraine, to ask his brother, Duke Gerard of Lorraine, to furnish troops. Frederick succeeded, and Gerard ordered 700 Swabian infantry to march to Rome.  The Pope also received troops from Apulia, Gaeta, Campania, and half a dozen other pro-papal regions in Italy.

Although some sources place the total strength of the papal army as high as 6,000 men, it may have been only 4,000. Nonetheless, it represented a wide anti-Norman alliance of various southern Italian states. The coming battle would pit the Normans against the rest.


The papal army assembled at Benevento the first week of June 1053. From there, it marched into northern Apulia via the Biferno Valley. Argyrus had proposed that it rendezvous with the smaller Byzantine army at Siponto near Monte Gargano.

To the Normans, it seemed that all of southern Italy was against them. In the face of such a massive threat, they temporarily put aside their internal differences and united to meet  the common threat. Humphrey de Hauteville saw the need to move quickly to prevent a union of papal and Greek armies. He sent word to Richard of Aversa and Robert Guiscard to join him at the Norman stronghold of Troia. Approximately 3,000 Normans and 500 Lombard militia gathered at the town, and Humphrey led them north  in search of Leo IX’s army.

The Normans took up a blocking position south of the Fortore River to await the arrival of the enemy host. The papal army crossed the river on 17 June and bivouacked on the south bank under the walls of Civitate. The Normans had misgivings about fighting soldiers in the service of the Pope, and they therefore sent envoys to ask Leo to enter into peace negotiations with them. Not only was the proposal rejected, but the Swabians surrounded the envoys and shouted insults at them.

Word soon spread through the Norman ranks that the Germans had mocked them.  This enraged them, and they vowed revenge. Because his army had no supplies and was in hostile country, Humphrey decided to attack the following day.


On the morning of 18 June, Duke Humphrey and his subordinates reconnoitred the papal deployment from a 50m-high hill that was the only high ground on the plain where the battle would be fought. While the reconnaissance was in progress, the Norman horsemen readied their mounts and took up their weapons.

Each of the army’s three divisions or `battles’ was nearly equal in size at approximately 1,000 cavalry. All of the Normans were superb warriors, as they were constantly in the saddle conducting small-scale operations against brig- ands or carrying out mercenary assignments for their Lombard or Greek employers.

Humphrey intended to fight in the centre. He instructed Count Richard to deploy his men on the right, and he told his half-brother, Robert, to deploy his men on the left, a short distance behind the main line. Humphrey told Robert that his division was to serve as the reserve. The 500-foot soldiers with the army were ordered to guard the Norman camp.

Leo IX watched the deployment of his army from the safety of the walls of Civitate. The papal army was divided into two wings. Rudolf, the captain of the Swabians, led the right wing, which included his troops, as well as other papal troops. Commanding the left wing, which was composed entirely of papal troops, were several Abruzzian counts: Trasmund III and Atto of Chieti, and Oderisius II of Sangro. Their experience was limited, and this was demonstrated by their inability to deploy their companies into a cohesive line of battle.


Richard’s mounted knights were the first to advance. `The Italians stood all crowded together on the other side because they neglected to draw up a battle line in the proper manner,’ wrote Norman chronicler William of Apulia.

The Norman cavalry easily penetrated the enemy’s left wing. The majority of the Italic-Lombard troops fled immediately. The Norman cavalry swirled around the few pockets that stood their ground. Those brave men were slaughtered.

Richard’s horsemen then chased the fleeing remnants of the papal left wing off the battlefield. This took Richard’s division out of the fight. Whether it would return quickly, or at all, before the battle was over was uncertain.

Next, Humphrey’s cavalry charged the Swabians, but these veteran soldiers stood their ground. The Swabians fought with round shields and long swords. Some of them cast aside their shields to wield their swords with both hands.

The Swabians repulsed several charges by Humphrey’s division. Each time the Normans regrouped and charged again; some threw javelins, while others charged with couched lance.

Once they had lost their lance, the Normans resorted to their swords. The fighting took on a gruesome character as the casualties mounted. `You could see human bodies split down the middle and horse and man lying dead together,’ wrote William of Apulia.

After the third or fourth charge, Robert Guiscard led his troops into battle to reinforce his half-brother Humphrey. Robert’s men easily shattered the less-experienced papal troops of the right wing, leaving the Swabians to fight alone against the combined weight of two Norman divisions.

Robert’s cavalry then wheeled and attacked the Swabians’ exposed right flank. In response, the Swabians formed a tightly packed square. They continued to beat back the Normans’ desperate mounted attacks.


Fortunately for the Hauteville brothers, Richard returned to the main battle with the bulk of his horsemen. His cavalry attacked the Swabians from behind. The two other divisions renewed their assaults in concert with Richard’s fresh attack.

Assailed from all sides, the Swabians could not withstand the numbers arrayed against them. When gaps opened in their ranks, the Normans rode among the Swabians, hacking and stabbing. With no place to retreat and no desire to surrender, the Swabians fought to the death.

Pope Leo IX watched the disaster unfold beneath his eyes from his perch inside Civitate. The Normans lost 500 cavalry and the papal army 1,500 men. After the battle, the townspeople turned the Pope over to the victorious Normans.

The Normans transferred the captive pontiff to Benevento, where he was kept under close guard for the next nine months. After he agreed to recognise their hereditary claims and accepted them as papal vassals, Leo was freed on 12 March 1054. Although he had been treated well in captivity, he died on 19 April.

The Norman lords continued slowly reducing the Catepanate of Italy well into the 1060s. When Humphrey died in 1057, Robert succeeded him as Duke of Apulia and Calabria. Pope Nicholas II confirmed Robert’s hereditary title and claim to these territories at the Council of Melfi two years later.

Robert, together with his younger brother Roger, spent the last part of his career in the subjugation of both Sicily and the Catepanate of Italy. Roger II, Roger I’s son, consolidated their territorial gains in the former into the Kingdom of Sicily in 1130.

The Normans had come to southern Italy seeking pay, booty, and land. Many were younger sons without an inheritance for whom the profession of arms was the only way to secure wealth and rank. Such was their prowess, and such eventually their numbers, that they became more powerful than their former employers. And when the minor states of southern Italy combined to overthrow them, it was the Normans who triumphed at Civitate, establishing their supremacy in the region, and creating a launch pad for the conquest of Sicily.

Medieval Warfare I.4

Theme: Mercenaries and mighty warlords – The Normans in the Mediterranean

  • Historical introduction – Sidney Dean, ‘The d’Hauteville brothers in Italy’.
  • The Source – Martijn Cissen, ‘Bohemond I of Antioch in the Alexiad’.
  • Theme – Will Stroock, ‘How to fight and win like a Norman’.
  • Theme – Nils Visser, ‘The use of Saracen mercenaries in Norman South Italy’.
  • Theme – Matthew Bennett, ‘Norman naval activities in the Mediterranean’.
  • Theme – Filippo Donvito, ‘The Battle of Civitate, 1053’.
  • Theme/The Siege – Vassilis Pergalias, ‘The Siege of Bari, 1068 – 1071’.


  • The Weapon – Peter Vemming, ‘Incendiary arrows in Bengedan’s Warbook’.
  • Special – Brian Burfield, ‘Treatment of wounds in the Middle Ages’.
  • The Battle – Jean-Claude Brunner, ‘Charles the Bold’s English Archers at the battle of Morat, 1476’.
  • Weapon Handling – Murray Dahm, ‘Hans Talhoffer’s instruction manual on weapon handling’.

Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance I

The Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo

October brought weeks of rain to the upper Isonzo valley, turning to sleet on the heights. Italian observers on both sides of the valley glimpsed the river through ragged gaps in the fog. One morning, they saw Habsburg soldiers move steadily up the valley, two abreast on the narrow road, towards the little town of Caporetto. No cause for alarm; they had to be prisoners marching to the rear. Otherwise …

For the Italians, the Twelfth Battle began as something unthinkable. By the time they realised what was happening, they were powerless to stop it. Cadorna liked to say that he led the greatest army in Italy since the Caesars. The last week of October 1917 turned this epic boast inside out; no single defeat in battle had placed Italy in such peril since Hannibal destroyed the Roman legions at Cannae, more than two thousand years before.

The unthinkable had a name: infiltration. On the other side of Europe, while Capello’s Second Army died in droves behind Gorizia, the German Eighth Army rewrote the tactical playbook. It happened on 1 September 1917, around the city of Riga, where the River Dvina flows into the Baltic Sea. Aiming to paralyse the Russian lines rather than demolish them, the preliminary bombardment was abrupt – no ranging shots – and deep, preventing the movement of reserves. Protected by a creeping barrage, the assault troops crossed the river upstream and took the Russians by surprise, punching through their lines from several angles, attacking the weak points without trying to overwhelm all positions at once. The Germans’ mobility and devolved command let them exploit this method to the full.

Their success did not emerge from a vacuum. Since early 1916, if not before, the warring commanders had searched for tactical norms that could, in Hew Strachan’s phrase, ‘re-establish the links between fire and movement which trench warfare had sundered’. Falkenhayn’s initial bid for breakthrough at Verdun sent stormtroopers ahead in groups after massive bombardments that had destroyed French communications. The Russians discovered other elements of infiltration with Brusilov’s brilliant offensive of May 1916. The British tested different attack formations, turning infantry lines into ‘blobs’ or, later, diamonds. Although there was no magic key, infiltration tactics emerged as a solution to attritional deadlock against defences that were ‘crumbling or incomplete’. This was the situation in the Riga salient, where the Russians were preparing to withdraw as the battle began, and the garrison in the city escaped. And it was certainly the situation on Cadorna’s upper Isonzo.

A week before the Riga operation, Emperor Karl wrote to the Kaiser ‘in faithful friendship’. The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo ‘has led me to believe we should fare worse in a twelfth’. Austria wished to take the offensive, and would be grateful if Germany could replace Austrian divisions in the east and lend him artillery, ‘especially heavy batteries’. He did not ask for direct German participation; indeed he excluded it, for fear of cooling the Austrian troops’ rage against ‘the ancestral foe’. The Kaiser replied curtly and referred the request to Ludendorff. The German general staff had already assessed that the Austrians would be broken by the next Italian offensive, which they expected before the end of the year. If Austria-Hungary collapsed, as it probably would, Germany would be alone: an outcome that had to be prevented. Meanwhile the Austrian high command – ignoring the Emperor’s scruple – had separately suggested a combined offensive.

Ludendorff decided he could spare six to eight divisions until the winter. He dusted off Conrad’s idea for an offensive across the upper Isonzo between Tolmein and Flitsch. Hindenburg, the chief of the general staff, sent one of his most able officers to reconnoitre the ground. An expert in mountain warfare, Lieutenant General Krafft von Dellmensingen had served in the Dolomites in 1915 and seen the emergence of fast-moving assault tactics against Romania. He now prepared a plan to drive the Italian Second Army some 40 kilometres back from the Isonzo to the Tagliamento and perhaps beyond, depending on the breakthrough and its collateral impact on the lower Isonzo. It was not intended as a fatal blow; the Germans believed the Italians were so dependent on British and French coal, ore and grain that nothing short of total occupation – which was out of the question – could make them sue for peace. Success would be measured by Italy’s inability to attack again before the following spring or summer.

The first target was a wedge of mountainous territory, five kilometres wide between Flitsch and Saga (now Žaga) in the north, then 25 kilo metres long, from this line to the Austrian bridgehead at Tolmein. The little town of Caporetto lies midway between Saga and Tolmein, near a gap in the Isonzo valley’s western wall of mountains. This breach, leading to the lowlands of Friuli, gave Caporetto a strategic importance quite out of proportion to its size. This had been recognised a century earlier by Napoleon, when he warned his commander in Friuli that if the Austrians broke through here, the next defensible line was the River Piave. South of Caporetto, the valley is a kilometre wide; northwards, the river snakes through a gorge of cliffs and steep hillsides, then broadens again at Saga, where the river angles sharply eastwards. At Flitsch, the valley splays open like a bowl, flanked on the north by Mount Rombon.

Since Austrian military intelligence had cracked the Italian codes earlier in the year, the Central Powers were well informed about enemy dispositions in this labyrinth of ridges rising 2,000 metres, where communications were ‘as bad as could be imagined’. Krafft thought the Italian defences were so shallow that losing this wedge of ground could crack open the front from Gorizia to the Carnian Alps. Eight to 10 divisions at Tolmein and three more at Flitsch should suffice. As at Riga, the artillery would deliver a very violent bombardment, then support the assault by laying down box barrages to isolate enemy units.

Hindenburg created a combined Austro-German force for the purpose, the Fourteenth Army, led by a German general, Otto von Below, with Krafft as his chief of staff. Seven German divisions, all of high quality, would join the three Austrian divisions already on the ground plus an additional two from the Eastern Front, backed by a reserve of five divisions: a total of 17 divisions, supported by 1,076 guns, 174 mortars and 31 engineering companies. It was an Austrian general who proposed applying the new tactics. Alfred Krauss, appointed to command a corps at the northern end of the sector, argued that the attack should proceed along the valley floors, avoiding the high ridges in order to isolate and encircle them. He had made a similar proposal to Conrad in 1916, in vain. This time, his advice was taken. For Cadorna, obsessed with attacking high ground and retaining it at all costs, this proposition would have made no sense. Yet it was appropriate to the terrain north of Tolmein, where the mountain ranges loosely interlock, with the Isonzo threading between them.

The attack was scheduled for mid-October, leaving only five or six weeks to prepare. The roads from the assembly areas beyond the Alps were few and poor, especially from the north; two passes linked Flitsch to the Austrian hinterland, but the roads were narrow. Fortunately the Austrians had a railhead near Tolmein. Some 2,400 convoys brought 140,000 men, a million and a half artillery shells, three million fuses, two million flares, nearly 800 tonnes of explosive, 230,000 steel helmets, 100,000 pairs of boots, 60,000 horses. Then October brought its downpours. The sodden roads sagged under the ceaseless traffic of boots, wheels and hooves. By veiling the massive concentration, however, the bad weather served the Central Powers well. The Germans went to great lengths to keep their presence secret. Transports arrived by night, some units wore Austrian uniforms, others were taken openly to Trentino then secretly moved eastwards. Fake orders were communicated by radio. The Austrian lines on the Carso, 40 kilometres away, were ostentatiously weakened to deter the Italians from transferring men northwards. The German air force, brought in for the first time, photographed the Italian lines and prevented Italian planes from overflying the Austrian lines. The gunners bracketed their targets over a six-day period, to avoid alerting the enemy.

If the Italian observers noticed nothing unusual, this was partly because they expected the front to remain quiet until spring 1918. Austrian deserters talked about an attack in the offing, but their warnings were ignored. By the 24th, the Central Powers had a huge advantage in artillery, trench mortars, machine guns and poison gas on the upper Isonzo, and roughly a 3:2 superiority in men. The Germans crouched like tigers, ready to spring. As for the Austrians, far from being demoralised by sharing their front, they were inspired by the scale of German involvement. Without knowing the whole plan, the troops realised something big was up. The possibility of moving beyond the hated mountains stirred their hearts.

On 18 September, Cadorna put the forces on the Isonzo front on a defensive footing. Without ensuring that his order was implemented, he let himself be absorbed by other matters. He was incensed to discover that Colonel Bencivenga, his chef de cabinet until the end of August (and who was so unhelpful over the Carzano initiative), had criticised his command in high places in Rome. This mattered because Cadorna’s Socialist and Liberal critics were finally making common cause, preparing to challenge his command when parliament opened in mid-October.

He was also vexed by an article in an Austrian newspaper. Cadorna filed every press clipping about himself, with references underlined in crayon. Several months earlier, a Swiss journalist had written that the Austrian lines on the Isonzo were impregnable. After the Tenth Battle, Cadorna sent his card to the journalist with a sarcastic inscription: ‘With spirited compliments on such penetrating prophecies about the strength of the Austrian lines, and hopes that you will never desist from similar insights.’ The insecurity betrayed by this gesture swallowed more urgent priorities. Now he did it again. A provincial newspaper in the Tyrol had commented that Cadorna wasted the first month after Italy’s intervention in May 1915. This criticism was too painfully true to pass; Colonel Gatti had to prepare a rebuttal explaining to readers in Innsbruck that Cadorna had not wasted even a day. (Would his revered Napoleon have written to an English provincial newspaper to explain why he decided not to invade Britain?)

Then he went on holiday with his wife near Venice. The rain was so heavy that he returned early, on 19 October, ‘in excellent spirits: calm, rested, tranquil’. By this point, the Supreme Command had been aware for at least three weeks that an attack was imminent on the upper Isonzo. The presence of Germans was rumoured. Even so, Cadorna’s staff did not take the threat seriously. The Austrians had never launched a big offensive across the Isonzo; why would they do so now, with winter at the door?

As late as 20 October, Cadorna did not expect an Austrian offensive before 1918. On the 21st, two Romanian deserters told the Italians the place and time of the attack. They, too, were ignored. Next day, Cadorna escorted the King to the top of Mount Stol, one of the ridges above Caporetto that link the Isonzo valley to Friuli. They agreed there was no reason to expect anything exceptional. On the 23rd, he predicted there would be no major attack, and said the Austrians would be mad to launch operations out of the Flitsch basin. Even on the morning of the 24th, when the enemy bombardment was under way, Cadorna advised his artillery commanders to spare their munitions, in view of the attack on the Carso that would inevitably follow. Rarely has a commander been exposed so completely as the prisoner of his preconceptions. What Clausewitz called ‘the flashing sword of vengeance’ was poised above his head, and he was unaware. He had little idea what was going on in the minds of his own soldiers; imagining the enemy’s intentions was far beyond him.

At 02:00 on 24 October, the German and Austrian batteries opened up along the 30-kilometre front. The weight and accuracy of fire were unprecedented, smashing the Italian gun lines, observation posts and communications, ‘as if the mountains themselves were collapsing’. According to Krafft von Dellmensingen, even the German veterans of Verdun and the Somme had seen nothing like it. Rather than softening up the enemy, the purpose was to atomise the defence. It succeeded with terrible effect, helped by fog and freezing rain, and more significantly by Italian negligence. For the lines on the upper Isonzo were in a sorry state.

After 18 September, the Duke of Aosta put Cadorna’s order into effect on the Carso, placing the Third Army on the defensive. The lines after the Eleventh Battle were incomplete in many places and lacked depth in most. Batteries had to be moved to less vulnerable locations. Communications along and between the lines were poor, especially at the juncture of command areas; they had to be improved. These humdrum tasks also awaited the Second Army, by far the biggest Italian force, deployed between Gorizia and Mount Rombon. Yet its commander, General Capello, was reluctant; he convened his corps commanders and paid lip-service to ‘the defensive concept’ while urging them to hold ‘the spirit of the counter-offensive’ ever-present in their minds. Capello enjoyed a mystical turn of phrase, and what he meant here was not clear. Probably Krafft von Dellmensingen was right when he wrote in his memoirs that Capello had no idea what was meant by a modern defensive battle. He followed up with an order that his commanders must convince the enemy of ‘our offensive intentions’. Again, Capello wanted to go his own way, and again Cadorna shrank from confronting him.

This confusion was most harmful on the Tolmein–Rombon sector, which was woefully undermanned. Of the Second Army’s 30 divisions, comprising 670,000 men, only ten were deployed north of the Bainsizza plateau. The northern sector had seen little significant action since 1916, and the Supreme Command judged that the mountains formed their own defence. For the same reason, none of the Second Army’s 13 reserve divisions was located north of Tolmein. East of the Isonzo, the troops were concentrated in the front line, depriving the second and third lines of strength, while the mountainous terrain would make it difficult to bring reserves forward, even supposing they could be transferred in time to be effective.

Despite these defects, nothing much was done until the second week of October. By this time, Capello was laid low with a recurrent gastric infection and nephritis. Sometimes he relinquished command and retired to bed or to a military hospital in Padua. This did not improve the efficiency of his headquarters, however. With Capello breathing down his neck and the Supreme Commander ignoring him, the interim commander’s grip was less than assured.

Illness did not shake Capello’s conceit. On 15 October, he was still talking about ‘the thunderbolt of the counter-offensive’. Four more days elapsed before Cadorna unambiguously rejected his request for extra reserves to bolster a visionary operation to push the Austrians back by six kilometres. Another four days passed before Capello explicitly dropped the idea of a counter-offensive. He did not commit himself to Cadorna’s defensive design until late afternoon on 23 October: less than 12 hours before the start of the Twelfth Battle. Incredibly, Cadorna failed to see that the practical unity of his command had been compromised, perhaps beyond repair. There was no clenched fist in charge of the army, as his father had insisted there must be. His worst nightmare had come true, and he could not see it.

The weakest section of the front was strategically the most important, around the Tolmein bridgehead. Commands were blurred; brigades and regiments came and went, and commanding officers were shuffled like playing cards. On the Kolovrat ridge and Mount Matajur, many units that faced the German army on the afternoon of the 24th only reached their positions that morning.

On 10 October, Cadorna ordered the 19th Division to move most of its forces west of the Isonzo. This was significant, for the 19th straddled the valley at Tolmein. The lines in the valley bottom, and on the hills to the west, were in better shape than the lines further east. Cadorna saw that the distribution of men and guns favoured offensive action, and wanted this to be corrected without delay. As the 19th Division was part of XXVII Corps, responsibility for implementing this order lay with the corps commander, Pietro Badoglio. Since his men stormed the summit of Mount Sabotino in August 1916, Badoglio’s career had been meteoric, raising him from lieutenant colonel to general within a year, making him the best-known soldier in the country after Cadorna, Capello, the Duke of Aosta and D’Annunzio. Now, inexplicably, he waited 12 days before implementing Cadorna’s critical order. When the Germans attacked out of Tolmein, fewer than half of the division’s battalions were west of the river, with an even smaller proportion of its medium and heavy guns. Badoglio had ordered the valley bottom to be ‘watched’ (as distinct from defended) by a minimal force. He had also instructed the corps artillery commander not to open fire without his authorisation. Around 02:30 on 24 October, this commander called for permission to fire. Badoglio refused: ‘We only have three days’ worth of shells.’ By 06:30, the telephone link between the corps commander’s quarters and his artillery headquarters, five kilometres away, had been destroyed. The artillery commander stuck to his orders, so there was no defensive fire around Tolmein.

At the northern end of the sector, the Italians were tucked into strong positions along the valley bottom between Flitsch and Saga. If Krauss were to capture this stretch of the river and take the mountain ridge beyond Saga, the Italians had to be rapidly overwhelmed. After knocking out the Italian guns, the Germans fired 2,000 poison-gas shells into the Flitsch basin. The gas was a mixture of phosgene and diphenylchloroarsine; the Italian masks could withstand chlorine gas, but not this. Blending with fog, the yellowish fumes went undetected until too late. As many as 700 men of the Friuli Brigade died at their posts. Observers on the far side of the basin scanned the valley positions, saw soldiers at their posts, and reported that the attack had failed. The dead men were found later, leaning against the walls of their dug-outs and trenches, faces white and swollen, rifles gripped between stiff knees.

(In Udine, 40 kilometres from Flitsch, Cadorna rises at 05:00, as always, to find his boots polished and uniform ironed by his bedside. After breakfasting on milk, coffee and savoyard biscuits with butter, he writes the daily letter to his family. This morning, he remarks that the worsening weather favours the defence. He is, he adds, perfectly calm and confident. At the 06:00 briefing, he learns that the second line on the upper Isonzo is under heavy shelling. He interprets the fact that there has been no assault as support for his view that this attack is a feint, intended to divert attention from the Carso.)

Zero hour was 07:30. The Austrian units spread into the fogbound valley below Mount Rombon. There was not much fighting; the powerful batteries at the bend in the river, by Saga, had been silenced. In mid-afternoon, the Italian forward units on Rombon were ordered to fall back to Saga after dark. With Austrians above and below them, their position was untenable. After burning everything that could not be carried, the three alpini battalions traversed the northern valley slopes while their attackers felt their way south of the river.

The Austrians reached Saga at dawn on the 25th to find it empty: the Italians had pulled back overnight to higher ground. For Saga guards the entrance to the pass of Uccea, leading westward. The southern side of this pass is formed by Mount Stol. The Italians hoped to block access to the Uccea pass from positions on Stol. Daylight illumines the high ridges before the valleys emerge from shadow. The Austrians entering Saga would look up at the Italian positions on Stol, and know that very little stood between them and the plains of Friuli.

It was a spectacular day’s work by the Krauss Corps. At the other end of the wedge, around Tolmein, progress had been even more dramatic. As we move there, let us pause over the sharp ridges that radiate like spokes from Mount Krn, and look more closely at one of the batteries that stayed silent on 24 October.

Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance II

The Italian third line between Flitsch and Tolmein ran along one of these ridges, called Krasji. One of the crags was occupied by an antiaircraft battery under Lieutenant Carlo Emilio Gadda, 5th Regiment of Alpini. No more eccentric character fought on the front. Later in life, he became modern Italy’s most original writer of fiction, the author of labyrinthine (and virtually untranslatable) novels that manage to be confessional and evasive, playful and melancholy, learned and rawly emotional all at once. His work weaves rich patterns of neurotic digression; the narrative escapes from a compelling, intolerable memory or emotion by fastening onto some unrelated motif which meanders helplessly back toward the source of pain, obliging the next brilliant deviation.

Born in Milan in 1893, Gadda broke off his studies in engineering to volunteer in 1915. He was an unhappy son of the repressed middle class, one of many in his generation for whom the war meant escape from claustrophobic homes, protective mothers, dull prospects and the general powerlessness of young men in a world ruled by grey beards and wing-collars. Idealistic, upright and naïve, distracted ‘to the point of cretinism’ as he said of himself, Gadda kept his real views on the war hidden from fellow officers and his men. For he was privately scathing about incompetent commanders, politicians and ‘that stuttering idiot of a King’. Nor was he sentimental about the other ranks; their low cunning (furberia) and lack of discipline would, he feared, lead the country to fail its first great test since unification. Yet he loved the comradeship and heroism of war, and dreaded returning to the muddles of civilian life. By October 1917, he had seen action in the Alps and on the Carso.1 He was perching on a crag above the Isonzo in October 1917 because he wanted to be there; he had let another officer take the spell of leave to which he was entitled.

Looking north, towards the enemy, Gadda would have seen the Italian first line on the opposite ridge, roughly two kilometres away. The second line was a thousand metres below, on the valley floor. On the map, it all looked convincing enough. In fact, the lines were extremely vulnerable. Word came down the wire from sector HQ at 02:00 on 23 October that enemy artillery fire would commence at once, beginning with gas shells. It did not happen; the sector stayed quiet all day, which Gadda and his 30 men – who had only recently arrived on their crag – spent in strengthening positions along the eastern ridge, leading to Krn. The weather had been bad for days, and that night the temperature dropped below zero.

They are awoken at 02:00 on the 24th by the ‘very violent’ bombardment of Flitsch, four or five kilometres north. Dawn breaks in thick fog and sleet, and is followed by enemy fire of pinpoint accuracy. Gadda realises that the Austrians want to break the telephone wire linking the batteries along the ridge. They soon succeed. The fog partly disperses, though it still shrouds the first and second lines. The men peer into it. No sounds reach them. Gadda interprets the eerie silence as proof that the Genoa Brigade, in front of them, is putting up a poor show. He worries about hitting his own forward lines if he opens fire in the fog. Several nerve-straining hours later, they hear machine guns further along their ridge towards Flitsch and glimpse men a few hundred metres away: either the Italians retreating or the Austrians giving chase.

Around 15:00, the small-arms fire is drowned out by massive detonations from the Isonzo valley, at their backs. This fills the men with dread. (The Italians are blowing up the munitions dumps and bridge at Caporetto before withdrawing.) Then silence settles again. (They do not know it, but their divisional commander has just ordered all the troops in their sector to fall back. Too late! The only bridges over the Isonzo have been blown or captured.) That night, the men lie down beside their machine guns, expecting the enemy to storm the ridge at every moment.

Further south, around Tolmein, zero hour on the 24th loosed an attack with several prongs. The main thrust was directed against high ground west of the Isonzo. Two German divisions and an Austrian division radiated out of the bridgehead and over the river, striking up the steep flanks and spurs that lead to the high ridges. Again the initial bombardment was highly effective, smashing the Italian cordon around the bridgehead. By nightfall, despite stiff resistance at some points, the attackers had captured the summits that Krafft identified as keys to Italian control.

North of Tolmein and east of the Isonzo, an Austrian division overran the fragile lines below the summit of Mount Mrzli, which the Italians had tried so hard to capture since 1915. With Badoglio’s artillery standing silent, the Italians were rolled back towards the valley bottom, where six German battalions advanced on both sides of the river, meeting little resistance. By noon, the rain had turned to sleet and the Germans occupied Kamno, a hamlet halfway to Caporetto.

Around midday, between Kamno and Caporetto, the Germans clashed with a platoon of the 14th Regiment, 4th Bersaglieri Brigade. One of the Italians involved in that firefight, Delfino Borroni, is the last Italian veteran of the Twelfth Battle, still alive at this time of writing. His regiment reached Cividale on the 22nd and marched through the rainy night to the second line. They got to Livek, overlooking the Isonzo, very early on the 24th. Wet and hungry, the men found a store of chestnuts in one of the buildings and roasted them over a fire. Corporal Borroni (b. 1898) gorged himself, and had to run outside at the double. As he crouched in the bushes, trousers round his knees, the commanding officer called his platoon to fall in. ‘Fix bayonets, boys, we’re going down!’ They crept towards the valley bottom in the darkness and waited for several hours, wondering what was going on. Eventually the Germans loom out of the mist. In Borroni’s memory, they are a grey swarm, a cloud. With the advantage of surprise, the Italians take them all prisoner: a detachment of some 80 men. The next German unit arrives at noon with machine guns and forces the Italians back up the hill to Livek.

At 12:15, as Borroni and his men are ducking the machine-gun fire near Caporetto, Cadorna is still asking how many guns the Second Army can spare for the Third Army, to parry the expected thrust on the Carso.

The enemy reaches the edge of Caporetto at 13:55. A few Italian officers try to stem the flood of troops retreating through the town. Those with rifles are pulled out of the crowd; the rest are allowed to go on their way, so as not to clog up the streets. When the men see this, they start throwing away their rifles. They look as if they hate the war more than the enemy. At 15:30, the retreating Italians blow the bridge over the Isonzo. Caporetto is captured half an hour later, along with 2,000 Italian prisoners. When German bugles sound in the main square, the Slovene citizens pour onto the street ‘to welcome their German liberators’     

The right flank of the force that attacked westwards out of Tolmein at 08:00 was formed by the Alpine Corps, a specialist mountain unit of division size, comprising Bavarian regiments and the Württemberg Mountain Battalion. The WMB included nine companies, staffed and equipped to operate autonomously.

During this tumultuous day, the Supreme Command receives essential information after hours of delay or not at all. By late morning, word reaches Udine through Capello’s headquarters that the enemy has attacked out of Tolmein. During the afternoon, dribs of news indicate that the Isonzo valley has been occupied and the hills west of Tolmein are falling like dominoes. Along the front, telephone lines go dead or are answered by guttural voices. Staff officers are in denial, and corps commanders start to trade blame. Capello orders his reserves to the front, unaware that any fresh forces will arrive too late to make a difference. (The speed of the enemy advance is still unimaginable.) Several divisions collapse. In some places, the reserves push their way to the line against a current of abusive comrades. Almost nothing of this is known at the Supreme Command, where Cadorna telegraphs all Second Army units: ‘The great enemy offensive has begun.’ The Supreme Command puts its trust in the heroic spirit of all commanders, officers and men, who will know how to ‘win or die’. But the Second Army officers do not know how to win, and the men do not want to die.

In Rome, parliament debates a Socialist motion for an official inquiry into alleged secret foreign funding of pro-war newspapers in 1914 and 1915. In the words of a Socialist deputy, ‘The country has the right to know if the hands of those who are responsible for the war, who incited it and urged it on, are filthy not with blood, but with money.’ In the late afternoon, the minister of war, General Giardino, takes the floor. The chamber is packed. Instead of defending the interventionist press, however, Giardino argues against an unrelated proposal to demobilise some of the older draft classes. After reading out parts of Cadorna’s bulletin about enemy preparations for an attack, he warns that this is not the time to reduce strength. The enemy is poised to exploit dissension. ‘Let them attack,’ he perorates, ‘we are not afraid.’ The deputies thunder approval. (The next day, Corriere della Sera reports that the delirium in parliament was like the heady days of May 1915.) Back at his ministry, Giardino finds an urgent telegram from Udine: the enemy are attacking Caporetto, they have taken thousands of prisoners and huge quantities of weapons.

Around 18:00, Gatti sees Cadorna ‘serene and smiling’ amid the tumult at the Supreme Command, still half-convinced the real attack will follow on the Carso. He reviews the daily bulletin, which claims that the enemy has concentrated his forces on the front for an attack which ‘finds us strong and well prepared’ – a phrase that makes Gatti wince. The Italian guns are responding with ‘violent salvoes’.

Cadorna does not know that the batteries have been silent all day. By 22:00, the scales are falling from his eyes. The Italians have been forced back to Saga and Kolovrat. Maybe 20,000 men have been captured. It is unlikely that the line can be held. He orders Capello to prepare the withdrawal of all forces on the Bainsizza plateau. Then he retires to take a strategic decision: should the Second Army retreat? Instead of assessing the situation on its merits, he lets hope persuade him that all may not be lost. He defines three new defensive lines, west of the Isonzo. On paper they look viable; in reality, even a highly disciplined army would be challenged to build secure positions while retreating through mountains. In a separate order, he instructs Capello and the Duke of Aosta to strengthen the defences on the River Tagliamento.

By now, some 14 infantry regiments and many battalions of alpini and bersaglieri have succumbed. As one of the staff officers milling around the Supreme Command, picking up snippets of news each more appalling than the last, Gatti cannot believe what he hears. ‘Monstrous,’ he writes helplessly in his diary, ‘inconceivable’. Surely he will wake tomorrow and find it is all a dream.

The skies cleared overnight, as wind thinned the fog and low cloud. Very few telephone lines were still working. Cadorna took solace in writing to his family: ‘If things go badly now, how they’ll pounce on me. What a wonderful country this is! Let God’s will be done.’ At 07:00, he ordered a withdrawal from Mount Korada, south of Tolmein. This was a strategic position, protecting the Bainsizza line and blocking enemy access to Friuli. He still hesitated to order a general retreat to the Tagliamento; he knew how fragile the rear defences were, and feared that the Third and Fourth Armies, and the Carnia Corps, might be cut off. At 08:30 he took Gatti aside. This might look like the Austrian attack in Trentino in spring 1916, he said, but it was much more serious. ‘Napoleon himself could not do anything in these conditions.’ He blamed the soldiers. ‘My personal influence cannot reach two million men,’ he protested. ‘Not even Napoleon could do that, in his Russian campaign.’  

In the north, the Krauss Corps pressed westwards to the pass of Uccea and south to join up with the Germans at Caporetto. Italian forces east of the Isonzo were trapped, whether they knew it or not. The night passed quietly for Lieutenant Gadda and his gunners on their crag, except for occasional explosions and flares in the valley behind them. Lacking information and orders, Gadda did not know what to think or do. Yesterday’s bombardment of their ridge was heavy, but he had survived much worse on the Carso. Their munitions were almost exhausted, so they could not expect to resist for long. Or might they use the fog to trick the Austrians into thinking the ridge was strongly defended? Gadda and his men could not know it, but they were victims of a perfect application of the Riga tactics. Isolated and confused, they could be left to surrender in their own time while the enemy pressed ahead.

Around 03:00 on the 25th, a messenger brings orders to retreat across the Isonzo. Caporetto has fallen: it is in enemy hands. Gadda leads his men down the mountain an hour later, carrying all their equipment, in complete darkness. ‘My heart was broken,’ he wrote later. Italian positions on the surrounding ridges are in flames. They pass groups of men from the Genoa Brigade with no officers, and hundreds of mules abandoned or killed in yesterday’s shelling. They reach the river around 11:00 and see Italian troops, unarmed, on the far side of the river, apparently heading for Caporetto. Can it still be in Italian hands after all, or has it been recaptured? His unit of 30 has grown to a thousand or so. Enemy troops are converging towards them, they have to cross the river which runs through a steep gorge, and is in spate, five or six metres wide and very fast, barring the way. Their dream of pushing Italy’s frontier beyond ‘this cursed Isonzo’ returns to mock them.

Ranging along the bank, they find a rickety bridge of planks lashed together with telephone wire, swaying over the torrent with a metal cable as railing. It would take all day to file across. He moves upstream, hoping the enemy has not broken through further north, towards Flitsch. Soldiers coming the other way tell him the next bridge upstream has been dropped. He cannot bear to believe them, and harangues them for spreading defeatist rumours. Then he sees the blown bridge and leads his men back to the plank bridge, their only hope.

There are troops in black uniforms on the far side of the river, moving up from Caporetto. His heart leaps: ‘Look! Reinforcements!’ Then he hears machine-gun and rifle fire, and realises the appalling truth: the Germans are on both sides of the river. Some soldiers try to cross the plank bridge and are targeted by machine guns concealed across the valley. The Italians throw their rifles away and cross the planks to surrender, obeying German officers who direct the movement of men with whistles, like football referees. The heap of rifles, machine guns, cartridge clips and ammunition belts at the water’s edge rises higher. Even if they hid until nightfall, Gadda’s unit would not be able to cross ‘the terrible, insuperable Isonzo’. It would be pointless to hold out, childish even. With a heavy heart, he orders his men to put their guns beyond use. They walk the plank one by one.

The prisoners are marched to Caporetto. The Germans treat them correctly; there is no brutality. A drunken Italian soldier drops his bottle of wine at the edge of the village, staining the dust crimson. Gadda and a fellow officer manage to steal some shirts and a uniform from abandoned houses. Later, he will wish he had stuffed his pockets with biscuit from an abandoned wagon. The Germans are setting up offices, using captured Italian staff cars as well as their own to move along the valley. Groups of soldiers wander around, German and Italian, some of them drunk. Dead men and mules litter the streets. It is a fine warm afternoon. Two whores stop them and ask for introductions to the German officers. Gadda’s gallant comrade asks the girls what plans they have now. ‘Italians or Germans,’ they say, ‘it is all the same to us!’ Their carefree answer mortifies Gadda, who realises that the day’s evil has not yet been drained.

Soon he is on his way to prison camp in Austria, ‘marching from midnight to 8 a. m.: horror, extremely sleepy and exhausted … The end of hope, annihilation of interior life. Extreme anguish for the fatherland.’ Capture is, above all, shameful. Over the next year, as he slowly starves, disgrace feeds on him. Reflecting endlessly on the defeat, he blames it on the Italian generals and their lack of foresight. Yet Gadda feels that prison is a justified punishment; the army has not risen to meet history’s challenge. Marches, battles and retreats haunt his sleep. He imagines family and friends reproaching him: ‘You let them get past … ’

During the morning of the 25th, an image of disaster emerged from the information reaching the Supreme Command: breakthroughs all along the front; morale collapsing; thousands of men making their way to the rear. The first towns west of the mountains were already threatened. Defence on the hoof was not working. Cadorna’s best if not only chance of avoiding catastrophe was to pull back the Second Army to a line far enough west to regroup before the enemy reached them. Capello advised a general retreat to the River Torre or the Tagliamento. When Cadorna disagreed, Capello took himself off to hospital in Padua. Next morning, he offered to return; Cadorna declined: he had enough on his plate without an ailing and probably sulking Capello. Where the two men saw eye to eye was in blaming many regiments for not doing their duty. Late in the afternoon, Cadorna wrote to his son: 

The men are not fighting. That’s the situation, and plainly a disaster is imminent … Do not worry about me, my conscience is wholly clean … I am very calm indeed and too proud to be affected by anything that anybody can say. I shall go and live somewhere far away and not ask anything of anyone.

By the end of the second day, the Central Powers controlled the Isonzo north of Tolmein. Mount Stol and the Kolovrat–Matajur ridge were on the point of falling. In the south, Badoglio had apparently abandoned his divisions after, or even before, they disintegrated, putting the middle Isonzo in jeopardy. The Duke of Aosta continued to prepare a retreat, moving his heavy batteries westward.

Still Cadorna procrastinated. He painted an encouraging view in the daily bulletin, claiming falsely that Saga had not fallen and that the enemy had made headway further south because Italian interdiction fire had been negated by fog. Then he telegraphed the government: ‘Losses are very heavy. Around ten regiments have surrendered without fighting. A disaster is looming, I shall resist to the last.’ Before this grim message reached Rome, the government lost a vote of confidence by 314 to 96 votes. The Socialists and anti-war Liberals had brought Boselli down. Cadorna predicted correctly that the new prime minister would be his main enemy in the cabinet, Vittorio Orlando.

Meanwhile soldiers streamed westwards, throwing away their rifles and chanting ‘The war’s over! We’re going home! Up with the Pope! Up with Russia!’ Around midnight Cadorna, Porro and the King were in a car together, returning to Udine from the front, when thousands of troops enveloped them, singing the ‘Internationale’ as they passed. Cadorna turned to his deputy: ‘Why doesn’t someone shoot them?’ Porro shrugged.

The fine weather, the enemy advance, the Italian rout, and Cadorna’s hesitancy all persisted throughout the 26th. Survivors of the Second Army were in full retreat; vast numbers of men funnelled through the few roads leading westwards, throwing away their weapons, burning whatever could not be carried, blowing up bridges and looting as they went: ‘infantry, alpini, gunners, endlessly’, as one of them remembered. ‘They move on, move on, not saying a word, with only one idea in their head: to reach the lowland, to get away from the nightmare.’ The hillsides below the roads were littered with wagons that had tumbled off the roads; ‘The horses lay still, alive or dead, hooves in the air.’

Civilians joined the stampede; the roads were clogged with carts, often drawn by oxen, piled high with chattels. The British volunteer ambulance unit watched the ‘long dejected stream’ pass along the road to Udine all day: ‘soldiers, guns, endless Red Cross ambulances, women and children, carts with household goods, and always more guns and more soldiers – all going towards the rear’. A British Red Cross volunteer saw how ‘the panic blast ran through the blocked columns – “They’re coming!”’ The command made no apparent effort to control the movement or clear the roads for guns and troops.

Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance III

Cadorna issued an order of the day, warning that the only choice was victory or death. The harshest means would be used to maintain discipline. ‘Whoever does not feel that he wins or falls with honour on the line of resistance, is not fit to live.’ He elaborated his instructions to the Second and Third Armies for an eventual retreat, and put the Carnia Corps and the Fourth Army on notice to retire beyond the River Piave.

What forced his hand was the loss that evening of Gran Monte, a summit west of Stol. At 02:50 on the 27th, he ordered the Third Army to retreat to the River Tagliamento. The same order went out to the Second Army an hour later. Yet 20 of the Second Army’s divisions were still in reasonable order, withdrawing from the Bainsizza and Gorizia. Cadorna’s priority should have been the safe retirement of these divisions – more than 400,000 men – behind the River Tagliamento. In his mind, however, the Second Army in its entirety was guilty. Perhaps this explains his decision to make the Second Army use only the northern bridges across the Tagliamento, reserving the more accessible routes for the ten divisions of the Third Army, which retreated ‘in good order, unbroken and undefeated’, burning the villages as well as its own ammunition dumps as it went, so that ‘the whole countryside was blazing and exploding’. This question of the bridges was critical, for the bed of the Tagliamento is up to three kilometres wide and the river was high after the rain, hence impassable by foot.

Between the Isonzo and the Tagliamento, the decomposing Second Army was left to its own devices. In the absence of proper plans for a retreat, there was nothing to arrest its fall. As commanding officers melted away in the tumult, key decisions were taken by any officer on hand, using his own impressions and whatever scraps of information came his way. According to a captain who testified to the Caporetto commission, the soldiers appeared to think the war was over; they were on their way home, mostly in high spirits, as if they had found the solution to a difficult problem.

A minor episode described in a letter to the press in 1918 illustrates the point. A lieutenant told the surviving members of his battalion that they would counter-attack soon, orders were on the way. Instead of orders, a sergeant came cycling along the road. When they stopped him and asked what was going on, he said the general and all the other bigwigs had run away.

‘Then we’re going too,’ someone said, and we all shouted ‘That’s right, we have had enough of the war, we’re going home.’ The lieutenant said ‘You’ve gone mad, I’ll shoot you’, but we took his pistol away. We threw our rifles away and started marching to the rear. Soldiers were pouring along the other paths and we told them all we were going home and they should come with us and throw their guns away. I was worried at first, but then I thought I had nothing to lose, I’d have been killed if I’d stayed in the trenches and anything was better than that. And then I felt so angry because I’d put up with everything like a slave till now, I’d never even thought of getting away. But I was happy too, we were all happy, all saying ‘it’s home or prison, but no more war’.

All along the front, variants on this scene convey a sense that a contract had been violated, dissolving the army’s right to command obedience. Nearly 400 years before, in his ‘Exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians’, Niccolò Machiavelli had warned his Prince that ‘all-Italian armies’ performed badly ‘because of the weakness of the leaders’ and the unreliability of mercenaries. The best course was ‘to raise a citizen army; for there can be no more loyal, more true, or better troops’. They are even better, he added, ‘when they find themselves under the command of their own prince and honoured and maintained by him’. Machiavelli the great realist would not have been surprised by the size of the bill that Cadorna was served after dishonouring his troops so consistently, and neglecting their maintenance so blatantly, for two and a half years.

On the third day of the offensive, the Austrians and Germans gave the first signs that they would not convert a brilliant success into crushing victory. Demoted in spring 1917 from chief of the general staff to commander on the Tyrol front, Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf had to sit and watch as von Below’s Fourteenth Army turned the tables on the hated enemy. Now he called for reinforcements so he could attack the Italian left flank. At best, Cadorna’s Second, Third and Fourth Armies and Carnia Corps would be trapped behind a line from Asiago to Venice, perhaps forcing Italy to accept an armistice. At the least, the Italians would be too distracted by the new threat to establish viable lines on the River Tagliamento.

Although Conrad’s reasoning was excellent, the Germans were not ready to increase their commitment or let the Austrians pull more divisions from the Eastern Front. Any Habsburg units which might be released by Russia’s virtual withdrawal from the war had to be sent to the Western Front, where the Germans were hard pressed by the British in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). All Conrad got were two divisions and a promise that any others no longer needed on the Isonzo would be sent to the Trentino for an offensive by five divisions, to commence on 10 November. But five divisions were pathetically few for the task, and 10 November would be too late.

Cadorna’s enemies had not expected such a breakthrough. As late as the 29th, Ludendorff stated that German units would not cross the Tagliamento. By this point, Boroević’s First Army (on the Carso) and Second Army (around the Bainsizza) should have been storming after the Italian Third Army. This did not happen, due to bad liaison between commanders, exhaustion, and the temptations of looting. As a result, the Third Army crossed the Tagliamento in good order at the end of October. Both divisions of the Carnia Corps also reached safety with few losses. Von Below would characterise the Austrian Tenth Army, that should have outflanked the Carnia Corps, as not ‘very vigorous in combat’.

On the afternoon of the 27th, the Supreme Command decamped from Udine to Treviso. Cadorna did not leave a deputy to organise the retreat. Was this an oversight or a logical expression of his belief that he was irreplaceable? Or was he punishing soldiers who had, as he believed, freely chosen not to fight? Let the cowards and traitors of the Second Army make their own shameful ways to the Tagliamento; they had forfeited the right to assistance.

By the following morning, the Supreme Command was installed in a palazzo in Treviso, more than 100 kilometres from the front. Over breakfast in his new headquarters, the chief talked about the art and landscape of Umbria, impressing his entourage with his serenity, a mood that presumably owed something to the King’s and the government’s affirmations of complete confidence in his leadership. (Meanwhile the enemy reached the outskirts of Udine, finding them ‘almost deserted with broken windows, plundered shops, dead drunk Italian soldiers and dead citizens’.) Before lunch Cadorna released the daily bulletin, blaming the enemy breakthrough on unnamed units of the Second Army, which had ‘retreated contemptibly without fighting or surrendered ignominiously’. Realising how incendiary these allegations were, the government watered down the text. It was too late: the original version had gone abroad and was already filtering back into Italy.

Late on the 28th, the enemy crossed the prewar border into Italy. The Austrian military bulletin was gleeful: ‘After five days of fighting, all the territory was reconquered that the enemy had laboriously taken in eleven bloody battles, paying for every square kilometre with the lives of 5,400 men.’ The Isonzo front ceased to exist. By the 29th, the Second and Third Armies were being showered with Austrian leaflets about Cadorna’s scandalous bulletin. ‘This is how he repays your valour! You have shed your blood in so many battles, your enemy will always respect you … It is your own generalissimo who dishonours and insults you, simply to excuse himself!’

An order on 31 October authorised any officer to shoot any soldier who was separated from his unit or offered the least resistance. This made a target of ten divisions of the Second Army. The worst abuses occurred near the northern bridges over the Tagliamento, where commanders who had abandoned their men days earlier saw a chance to redeem themselves.

The executions at Codroipo would provide a climactic scene in the only world-famous book about the Italian front: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

The wooden bridge was nearly three-quarters of a mile across, and the river, that usually ran in narrow channels in the wide stony bed far below the bridge, was close under the wooden planking … No one was talking. They were all trying to get across as soon as they could: thinking only of that. We were almost across. At the far end of the bridge there were officers and carabinieri standing on both sides flashing lights. I saw them silhouetted against the skyline. As we came close to them I saw one of the officers point to a man in the column. A carabiniere went in after him and came out holding the man by the arm … The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on … They were executing officers of the rank of major and above who were separated from their troops … So far they had shot everyone they had questioned.

The narrator is Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American volunteer with the Second Army ambulance unit. Caught up in the retreat from the Bainsizza, he is arrested on the bridge as a German spy. As he waits his turn with the firing squad, Henry escapes by diving into the river. ‘There were shots when I ran and shots when I came up the first time.’ He is swept downstream, away from the front and out of the war. Immersion in the Tagliamento breaks the spell of his loyalty to Italy. ‘Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation … I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience. It was no point of honour. I was not against them. I was through … it was not my show any more.’

The deaths in Hemingway’s chapter on Caporetto involve Italians killing each other. The enemy guns are off-stage, heard but not seen, while German troops are glimpsed from a distance, moving ‘smoothly, almost supernaturally, along’ – a brilliant snapshot of Italian awe. Henry shoots and wounds a sergeant who refuses to obey orders; his driver, a socialist, then finishes the wounded man off (‘I never killed anybody in this war, and all my life I’ve wanted to kill a sergeant’). The driver later deserts to the Austrians, a second driver dies under friendly fire, then there is the scene at the Tagliamento. It is a panorama of internecine brutality and betrayal, devoid of heroism. With the army self-destructing, nothing makes sense except Henry’s passion for an English nurse. Caporetto is much more than a vivid backdrop for a love story: it is an immense allegory of the disillusion that, in Hemingway’s world, everyone faces sooner or later. Henry’s desertion becomes a grand refusal, a nolo contendere untainted by cowardice, motivated by a disenchantment so complete that it feels romantic: a new, negative ideal which holds more truth than all the politics and patriotism in the world.

By 1 November, there were no Italian soldiers east of the Tagliamento. Cadorna had hoped to hold the line long enough to regroup much of the Second Army. Instead, early next day, an Austrian division forced its way across a bridge on the upper Tagliamento that had not been completely destroyed. This gave heart to a German division trying to ford the river further south. When both bridgeheads were consolidated, Cadorna faced the danger that most of his Second Army and all of his Third Army could be enveloped from the north. On the morning of 4 November, he ordered a retreat to the Piave line. The Austro-German commanders redefined their objectives: the Italians should be driven across the River Brenta – beyond Venice! However, Ludendorff was not yet convinced. By the time he changed his mind, on 12 November, approving a combined attack from the Trentino, the Italians had stabilised a new line on the River Piave and Anglo-French divisions were arriving from the Western Front.

Haig commented privately on 26 October that, ‘The Italians seem a wretched people, useless as fighting men but greedy for money. Moreover, I doubt whether they are really in earnest about this war. Many of them, too,’ he added for good measure, ‘are German spies.’ Although these prejudices were widely shared in London and France, the Allies were shocked by the speed of the disintegration and alarmed at its potential impact: if Italy were to be neutralised along with Russia, Austria would be free to support Germany on the Western Front. On 28 October, with Friuli ‘ablaze from end to end’, Britain and France agreed to send troops. Robertson and Foch, the respective chiefs of staff, offered six divisions: hardly enough to bail out their ally, but sufficient to bolster the defence and buy London and Paris political leverage that could be used to unseat the generalissimo.

The deed was done at an inter-Allied meeting in Rapallo, on 6 November. General Porro’s presentation dismayed the British and French; his vagueness about the facts of the situation and his pessimism confirmed that change at the top was overdue. There was even talk of retreating beyond the Piave to the River Mincio, losing the whole of the Veneto. In a stinging rebuff to the Supreme Command, and specifically to Cadorna’s allegations of 28 October, the British stated that they were ready to trust their troops to the bravery of the Italian soldiers but not to the efficiency of their commanders. When Porro tried to speak, Foch told him to shut up. On behalf of Britain and France, Lloyd George insisted on ‘the immediate riddance of Cadorna’. This gave cover to Orlando’s government of ‘national resistance’, which wanted Cadorna to go but feared a showdown. In return for an Italian pledge to hold the line on the Piave, the British and French increased their promised support to five and six divisions respectively.

As the flood of Italian troops ebbed towards the Piave and the Supreme Command reasserted control over shattered units, the Central Powers made errors. Instead of striking from the north-west as von Below and Boroević swept in from the east, Conrad’s underpowered army advanced to the southern edge of the Asiago plateau and no further. The Krauss Corps was sent north to secure Carnia instead of pursuing the Italians westward.

After the war, Hindenburg described his disappointment over Caporetto. ‘At the last the great victory had not been consummated.’ Krauss accused Boroević of failing to clinch victory over the Third Army. These recriminations reflect the bitterness of overall defeat in the World War, which made Caporetto look like a missed opportunity. Piero Pieri, the first notable historian of the Italian war, put his finger on the problem: the Central Powers had, on this occasion, lacked ‘the annihilating mentality’.

King Victor Emanuel had his finest hour on 8 November, rising to the moment with a speech affirming his faith in Italy’s destiny. That day, the Second and Third Armies completed their crossing of the River Piave, which was running high after heavy rain. At noon on the 9th, the engineers dropped the bridges.

The new line lay some 150 kilometres west of the Isonzo. The fulcrum of the line was a rugged massif called Grappa, some 20 kilometres square. If Grappa fell, the Italians would be vulnerable both from the north and the east. After the Austrian attack of May and June 1916, Cadorna had planned to fortify Mount Grappa with roads, tunnels and trenches. In effect it was the fifth defensive line from the Isonzo. Engineering in mountainous terrain was what the Italian army did best, yet these works were hardly in hand when the Twelfth Battle began: a single track and two cableways to the summit, a water-pumping station, some barbed wire, and gun emplacements facing the wrong way (westwards).

When the Krauss Corps and then von Below’s Fourteenth Army hit the Grappa massif in mid-November, like the last blows of a sledgehammer, the Italians were almost knocked back onto the plains. Conrad quipped that they hung on to the south-western edge of Grappa like a man to a window-ledge. The Supreme Command packed 50 battalions onto Grappa – around 50,000 men, including many recruits from the latest draft class. The ensuing struggle was a battle in itself; the situation was only saved at the end of December, with timely help from a French division – the Allies’ sole active contribution to the defence after Caporetto. This achievement gave birth to two new, much-needed myths: the defence of Mount Grappa was acclaimed as a victory that saved the kingdom, and the ‘boys of ’99’, sent straight from training to perform miracles, proved that Italian fighting mettle was alive and well.

Foch and Robertson would have preferred the Duke of Aosta to replace Cadorna. This was said to be inappropriate because the Duke was a cousin of the King; in truth, it was impossible because Victor Emanuel loathed his tall, handsome cousin. So they accepted the government’s proposal of General Armando Diaz, with Badoglio and Giardino as joint deputies.

Diaz, a 57-year-old Neapolitan, had risen steadily through the ranks. After the Libyan war, in which he showed a rare talent for winning the affection and respect of his regiment, he served as General Pollio’s chef de cabinet. After a year in the Supreme Command, he asked to be sent to the front, where his calm good humour was noticed by the King, among others. He led the XXIII Corps on the Carso with no particular distinction. A brother general described him as a fine man and a good soldier but completely adaptable, ‘like pasta’, with no ideas of his own. Cadorna’s court journalists scoffed at the appointment, and Gatti was withering (‘Who knows Diaz?’).

Diaz would vindicate the King’s trust. News of his promotion, on 8 November, struck him like a bolt of lightning. Accepting the ‘sacred duty’, he said: ‘You are ordering me to fight with a broken sword. Very well, we shall fight all the same.’ And fight he did, though in a different way from his predecessor. He proved to be an exceptional administrator and skilful mediator, reconciling the government and the Supreme Command to each other, and rival generals to his own appointment. Journalists were told that ‘with this man, there will be no dangerous independence. State operations will be kept united at all times.’ In other words, no more ‘government in Udine’. His first statement to the troops urged them to fight for their land, home, family and honour – in that order. He was what the army and the country needed after Cadorna, and while he showed no brilliance as a strategist, he made no crucial mistakes and took the decisions that led to victory.

On 7 November, hosting his last supper at the Supreme Command, Cadorna addressed posterity over the plates: ‘I, with my will and my fist, created and sustained this organism, this army of 3,000,000 men, until yesterday. If I had not done it, we would never have made our voice heard in Europe …’ Early the following day, the King arrived to persuade Cadorna to leave quietly. They conferred for two hours. Cadorna knew he could not survive, yet the humiliation was too much. There was no graceful exit. Diaz arrived late that evening. When he presented a letter from the minister of war announcing his appointment as chief of staff with immediate effect, Cadorna broke off the meeting and telegraphed the minister: he would not go without a written dismissal. The order arrived early next morning. A new regime took over at the Supreme Command.

The phrase ‘doing a Cadorna’ became British soldiers’ slang for coming unstuck, perpetrating an utter fuck-up and paying the price.

The statistics of defeat were dizzying. The Italians lost nearly 12,000 dead, 30,000 wounded and 294,000 prisoners. In addition, there were 350,000 disbanded men, roaming around or making for home. Only half of the army’s 65 divisions survived intact, and half the artillery had been lost: more than 3,000 guns, as well as 300,000 rifles, 3,000 machine guns, 1,600 motor vehicles and so forth. Territorially, some 14,000 square kilometres were lost, with a population of 1,150,000 people.

The Austro-German offensive was prepared with a meticulousness that the Supreme Command could hardly imagine. The execution, too, was incomparably efficient. Cadorna’s general method, as he once explained to the King, was to use as many troops as possible along a sector as broad as possible, hoping the enemy lines would crack somewhere. The Italian insistence on retaining centralised control at senior levels was also archaic beside the German devolution of authority to assault team level. Caporetto was the outcome when innovative tactics were expertly used against an army that was, in doctrine and organisation, one of the most hidebound in Europe.

The Twelfth Battle was a Blitzkrieg before the concept existed. An Austrian officer who fought in the Krauss Corps described the assault on 24 October as a fist punching through a barrier, then unclenching to spread its fingers. This is very like a recent description of Blitzkrieg as resembling ‘a shaped charge, penetrating through a relatively tiny hole in a tank’s armor and then exploding outwardly to achieve a maximum cone of damage against the unarmored or less protected innards’. Those innards had, in the Italian case, been weakened by a combination of savage discipline, mediocre leadership, second-rate equipment and arduous terrain. Without this debilitation, the Second Army would not have collapsed almost on impact.

Naturally, Cadorna could not see or accept that he had undermined the troops. But he knew that others would make this charge, which is why he launched, pre-emptively, the self-serving myth that traitors and cowards were responsible for the defeat. This myth became Cadorna’s most durable legacy, thanks in part to a prompt endorsement by Leonida Bissolati, the cabinet minister. Adding a nuance to Cadorna’s lie, Bissolati claimed that a sort of ‘military strike’ had taken place. Probably he was scoring points against his rivals on the political left; instead he deepened a stain on the army that still lingers. By likening the events on the Isonzo to the recent workers’ protests in Turin, Bissolati put a political complexion on the defeat. The ease with which discipline was restored by the end of 1917 would have scotched these allegations if it had not suited Italy’s leaders to keep them alive. It also suited the Allies, who wanted to minimise the responsibility of their Italian colleagues and had their own doubts about Italian martial spirit. Ambassador Rodd and General Delmé-Radcliffe parroted the conspiracy theory in their reports to London. For the historian George Trevelyan, leading the British Red Cross volunteers who retreated with the Third Army, there was ‘positive treachery at Caporetto’; Cadorna’s infamous bulletin had told the salutary truth. For the novelist John Buchan, working as a senior propagandist in London, treachery had ‘contributed to the disaster’, for a ‘secret campaign was conducted throughout Italy’ in 1917, producing a ‘poison’ that ‘infected certain parts of the army to an extent of which the military authorities were wholly ignorant’.

For some, a more dreadful possibility underlay these accusations. Was ‘Italy’ a middle-class illusion? Instead of forging a stronger nation-state, the furnace of war had almost dissolved it. What would happen at the next test? Disaffection with the state might be wider and deeper than they had thought possible. Had the mass of Italians somehow been left out of the nation-building process? If so, what further disasters still lay in store? It was a moment when everything solid seemed to melt away. The philosopher Croce, usually imperturbable to a fault, wrote during the Twelfth Battle: ‘The fate of Italy is being decided for centuries to come.’ Even politicians who did not swallow the ‘military strike’ thesis, and knew that Socialist members of parliament were too patriotic to want peace at any price, feared the outcome if popular disaffection became politically focused. After all, Lenin had taken power in Russia in early November. For weeks after Caporetto, many officials believed that revolution or sheer exhaustion would force Italy out of the war.

This mood of shaken self-questioning subsided as the army was rebuilt in late 1917 and early 1918. It would be driven underground, into the national unconscious, first by the victories of 1918, then by Fascist suppression. Yet those who took part never forgot the fearful dreamlike days when the world turned upside down. For the essence of Caporetto lay in the wrenching uncertainty of late October, when the commanders did not know what was happening, the officers did not know what to do, the soldiers did not know where the enemy was, the government did not know if Italy was on the brink of losing the war, and ordinary citizens did not know if their country might cease to exist. All Italians dreamed that dream; the nation was haunted by an image of men fleeing the front in hundreds of thousands, throwing away their rifles, overcome by disgust with the army, the state and all its works, wanting nothing more (or less) than to go home. When the anti-fascist Piero Gobetti wrote in the 1920s that the Italians were still ‘a people of stragglers, not yet a nation’, he evoked that fortnight when the country threatened to come apart at the seams.

Under Mussolini, the myth of a military strike was discouraged; it undermined the Fascists’ very different myth of the war as the foundation of modern Italy, a blood rite that re-created the nation. The fact of defeat at Caporetto had to be swallowed: a sour pill that could be sweetened by blaming the government’s weakness. Fascist accounts of the Twelfth Battle tended to whitewash Cadorna and defend the honour of the army (‘great even in misfortune’) while incriminating Capello and indicting the government in Rome for tolerating defeatists, profiteers and bourgeois draft-dodgers. Boselli (‘tearful helmsman of the ship of state’) and his successor Orlando were particularly lampooned. One valiant historian in the 1930s turned the narrative of defeat inside out by hailing Caporetto as a deliberate trap set and sprung by Cadorna, ‘the greatest strategist of our times’. The Duce himself called Caporetto ‘a reverse’ that was ‘absolutely military in nature’, produced by ‘an initial tactical success of the enemy’. Britain and France could also be condemned for recalling, in early October 1917, most of the 140 guns they had lent Cadorna earlier in the year. Even so, the defeat was not to be examined too closely. When Colonel Gatti wanted to write a history of Caporetto, in 1925, Mussolini granted access to the archives in the Ministry of War. Then he had second thoughts; summoning Gatti to Rome, he said it was a time for myths, not history. After 1945, leftist historians argued that large parts of the army had indeed ‘gone on strike’, not due to cowardice or socialism, but as a spontaneous rebellion against the war as it was led by Cadorna and the government.

That primal fear of dissolution survives in metaphor. Corruption scandals are still branded ‘a moral Caporetto’. Politicians accuse each other of facing an ‘electoral Caporetto’. When small businesses are snarled up in Italy’s notorious red tape, they complain about an ‘administrative Caporetto’. When England lost to Northern Ireland at football, it was ‘the English Caporetto’. This figure of speech stands for more than simple defeat; it involves a hint of stomach-churning exposure – rottenness laid bare.