The Italian Atomic Bomb I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Italian Atomic Bomb II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planned Special Forces attack on New York, 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of Novara (Ariotta)

The French invasion of Milan, 1513

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

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

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

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

The Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swiss and Landsknechts – Rivalry and Blood-Feud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Italy Prepares for Invasion I

The collapse of the North African Campaign in May 1943 came as a shock to the Italian people. They knew that their armed forces had suffered reverses in the desert, but total defeat seemed beyond the realm of possibility. They seemed to be clearly winning the war–with some important reverses–from June 1940 to July 1942. How could such a reversal of fortunes have occurred? How could the domination of Mare Nostro have slipped away from the Regia Marina without its magnificent fleet being defeated in a major battle?

Mussolini himself would have difficulty answering such questions. Incredibly perhaps, his popularity suffered little with the loss of his empire. Secret polls conducted separately by the Fascist Party and the hostile House of Savoy, whose pro-British aristocrats were looking for an end to both the Duce and hostilities, both agreed that the majority of Italians were more inclined to blame the ineptitude of his generals (a not entirely unfounded accusation) than his own leadership. Mussolini ha siempre raggione! – “Mussolini is always right!”–still held sway. Appalled as they were by the surrender in North Africa, an enemy invasion of the homeland was out of the question, because popular confidence in national defense rested chiefly on Pantelleria.

Lying between Tunisia and Sicily, the tiny island was universally regarded as the ‘Italian Gibraltar’, a fortified outpost bristling with huge artillery and hundreds of lesser guns manned by companies of elite troops; a sheltered harbor protecting flotillas of torpedo-boats; and a squadron of the Regia Aeronautica’s finest pilots and planes. Military propaganda had for years depicted Pantelleria, less than half the size of Malta, as an unassailable bastion shielding the entire Central Mediterranean from regional contingencies, such as the fall of North Africa. The image of an anchored, unsinkable super-battleship was applied to the island.

This characterization, while over-stated for mass-consumption, may have been at least partially accurate until the first year of the war, when Pantelleria’s supplies of arms and ammunition were steadily raided by Commando Supremo procurement officials to make up for accumulating losses in Libya and Tunisia. By late 1942, the island had been mostly stripped of its defenses, reduced to a fraction of their former capabilities. This ‘floating fortress’ upon which the Italian people based their faith in ultimate victory, or, at any rate, in a stalemate that would stave off invasion, was no longer able to protect itself, let alone southern Europe.

But the Allies were likewise deceived. They too, believed in Pantelleria’s formidable reputation, and were certain the whole Mediterranean Theater hinged on its seizure. A major air-sea operation was designed to limit casualties, which were expected to be high, regardless of any precautions. Several USAAF bomber squadrons were prepared for large-scale raids against the island, accompanied by a naval blockade. Landings would take place only after resistance had been impaired, but high losses were officially anticipated.

“The Italians did not fight with much enthusiasm in North Africa”, General Dwight Eisenhower, commanding U.S. troops in newly conquered Tunisia, told his military colleagues on the eve of the assault.” But they can be expected to resist fiercely, once their homelands are threatened.” British Field Marshal Montgomery observed in an aside to French General Marcel, “if they behave as the Yanks did at the Kasserine Pass, we should have no difficulty taking Pantelleria.” The barb was one of numerous taunts typifying ill will among U.S. and British commanders throughout the war, and referred to 30,000 American troops routed by the Afrika Korps just three months earlier in Tunisia.

In truth, conditions for the 7,000 poorly armed soldiers and 10,000 impoverished civilians of Pantelleria were dire. Neither food nor supplies of any kind had reached them since January, and drinking water had become so scarce, military and civilian personnel alike relied mostly on the central island’s three natural wells to relieve their thirst. Defenses were down to an insufficient number of anti-aircraft weapons and handful of large guns incapable of covering the entire coast. Against these less than formidable odds, beginning 18 May, the Americans launched 100 heavy and medium bombers in two to four raids every twenty-four hours over the next ten days.

Virtually all defenses were knocked out in short order, save the island’s few, remaining, largest artillery pieces which had been emplaced under natural rock shelters several meters thick. The only three surviving wells were destroyed, and growing numbers of panicked women and children began crowding into caves or underground ammunition storage bunkers, as their sole protection against the murderous onslaught from the sky. With their homes and all public services obliterated, they huddled, starving and ravaged by thirst, amid stacks of live shells they prayed would not explode.

Roads linking defensive positions were rendered impassable by numerous bomb craters, so emergency crews toiled all through the night to repair them, because workers would have been otherwise machine-gunned during daylight hours by enemy fighters flying low-level strafing missions and shooting at anything that moved. Even these after-dark repairs became impossible following the 29th, when American aircraft illuminated the entire island in the brilliance of descending parachute flares. They were thus enabled to commence the round-the-clock, indiscriminate saturation bombing of Pantelleria.

The carnage was bolstered by salvo after salvo fired from destroyers laying off shore. With the roads no longer passable and most telephone wires cut, communication between outposts had to be carried out on foot by couriers who risked their lives venturing beyond the shelter of caves. Unable to sleep or fight back, all the inhabitants could do was to keep their heads down. Their misery was compounded by the destruction of all hospital facilities for the burgeoning cases of wounded, who were cared for by under-equipped field clinics short on medical supplies of all kinds.

Both German and Italian aircraft made serious, persistent attempts to interdict the U.S. bombers. A communiqué sent from the fighting at Pantelleria to Rome reported that the garrison “has been facing the ceaseless enemy air attacks with unflinching courage, and yesterday destroyed six airplanes.” A later radio message cited “eleven more enemy planes” brought down. But five-to-one odds prevented all save a handful of Junkers or Macchi transports and fighters, usually carrying a few medical or food supplies, from making precarious landings on Pantelleria’s holed runways.

Some 250 Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica interceptors fought their way into the skies over Pantelleria during the last eleven days of its merciless siege, shooting down forty-three USAAF and RAF aircraft, while losing fifty-seven of their own. These casualties were prohibitively high, and forced the cancellation of all further assistance by air. Ordinarily effective motor torpedo-boats sortied together against the naval siege, but, minus air cover, they were strafed by hordes of Allied fighters which prevented them from coming within firing range of any targets.

A final, self-sacrificial effort on the part of both Regia Marina sailors and Regia Aeronautica pilots succeeded, however, in punching through the U.S. blockade long enough to allow the passage of a single water-tanker. The ship also carried a vitally needed water purification and distilling plant. Tragically for the thirsty islanders, their port had been so devastated by air-raids, the Arno was unable to deliver this invaluable equipment or a single drop of water, and forced to return to Trepani. On board were 1,000 German troops originally stationed on Pantelleria. Their departure added to the defenders’ demoralization, yet they still refused to surrender.

They had a reputation for incredible toughness going back many centuries. Thirteen centuries before, the entire Christian population had been butchered by Arab invaders, who were pushed into the sea by Roger II leading Italian forces from Sicily during 1123 A.D. 430 years later, Pantelleria was sacked again, this time by the Turks. These historic parallels made some islanders hope that Mussolini would similarly come to their aid from Sicily, and expel these 20th Century versions of 8th Century invaders. But conditions were so awful during the spring of 1943, residents may have felt more like dispossessed persons exiled by the Caesars, who used Pantelleria as a place of banishment during Imperial Roman times.

Sure no one could endure such intense punishment meted out for eighteen consecutive days, the Americans demanded an unconditional surrender from Pantelleria’s governor, Admiral Gino Pavesi. As he explained in a communiqué sent to Rome, “throughout yesterday, 10 June, and last night, heavy enemy bomber and fighter formations followed one another uninterruptedly over Pantelleria, whose garrison, though battered by the onslaught of some 1,000 enemy machines, has proudly left unanswered a fresh demand to surrender.” His refusal to respond prompted the most severe beating yet inflicted on the island. At its eastern end alone, B-24 Liberators dropped in excess of 5,000 tons of high explosives, more than twice the amount that fell on Malta in a single month at the height of Axis air activity in 1942.

On 9 June, as a consequence of this concerted air assault, all of Pantelleria’s fifty-two square kilometers suddenly vanished for the next two days under an immense pall of dust, through which gunners could not sight their field artillery, most of it destroyed, in any case. Just a single pair of anti-aircraft artillery were still operable, but rendered useless by their position high atop Magna Grande, the island’s 837-meter-high volcano.

In the clear, blue skies above this unnatural inferno, Regia Aeronautica pilots, oblivious to the numerical odds against them, fought with unmatched ferocity. In an uneven melee that pitted fourteen Folgores and four Italian-flown Messerschmitt-109s against fifty RAF Spitfires and American P-38s, eight Spitfires were shot down for the loss of three Macchi 202s.

Admiral Pavesi sent a personal telegram to Mussolini, informing him that all further resistance was futile, and, in the name of the civilian population, appealed for permission to surrender. As soon as the Duce granted his request, a white flag was hoisted from the antenna of the island’s only radio station building. Over its microphone Pavesi informed the Allies of his willingness to capitulate.


Allied propagandists juxtaposed his surrender broadcast with the story of Malta, whose stalwart defenders survived more than two years of air-raids, while Pantelleria held out for less than a month. The analogy was used to reaffirm Italian cowardice and general lack of enthusiasm for ‘Mussolini’s war’. Such comparisons were not entirely applicable, however, because Malta suffered only a fraction of the bomb tonnage dropped on much smaller Pantelleria. Even so, the Duce later learned to his chagrin that the actual condition of the beleaguered island contrasted with its dramatic appearance under fire. During the entire siege, the garrison lost just “fifty-six dead and 116 wounded, almost all of them Blackshirts in the anti-aircraft defenses,” he discovered. “The civil population and troops barricaded in the underground hangers had suffered only insignificant losses. The entire garrison of 12,000 men was taken prisoner almost intact … The hangars, dug out of the rock, had nullified the effects of the enemy bombs. The 2,000 tons of bombs certainly did fall on the island, but on rock, not men! … Admiral Pavesi had lied; today we may say that he betrayed us. Not even the underground hangars were demolished, and the airfield was left almost intact.”

While it is true that the garrison, having been cut off from all outside aid, was in no position to have held out indefinitely, the island could have delayed the inevitable, thereby affording valuable time for fortifying Sicily. Pavesi’s imperfect defense, however brief, was not in vain, and resulted in important repercussions for the entire Mediterranean Campaign. Pantelleria had never been a danger to the Allies, who could have sailed past it with impunity toward their invasion of Sicily. By wasting nearly a month in an entirely avoidable expenditure of effort, they provided the Italians with much-needed time to beef-up their Sicilian defenses, which had been no less neglected than those left on Pantelleria. Consequently, Anglo-American troops would pay dearly on the plains of Sicily for this previous diversion to the smaller island.

“It was this damnably stupid ‘island-hopping’ mentality that gave our enemies the luxury of time,” complained General Omar Bradley, “and that needlessly cost so many American soldiers their lives in the Mediterranean. The same misguided strategy was applied in the Pacific, where most islands we took with such heavy losses should have been bypassed, so we could have gone after real objectives to end the war sooner by two years and thousands of less dead G.I.s”

Despite General Bradley’s condemnation of ‘island-hopping’ against both Italy and Japan, Eisenhower granted Mussolini another grace period in yet one more useless operation against an even more insignificant island. For all its virtually non-existent fortifications, the Americans still needed an entire week of massive air raids and naval gunfire to take Lampedusa. With more than a month to prepare for the invasion of southern Europe, Italian troops, accompanied by the Hermann Goering Armored Division, took up their positions in Sicily.

To divert public attention from the apparent calamity at Pantelleria and restore morale, Mussolini ordered a suicidal mission far behind enemy lines, just as Italian defenders of the island capitulated. On 13 June, a lone, long-range transport flew undetected to North Africa. Since the conclusion of the Desert Campaign in May and subsequent concentration of activity in the Central Mediterranean at Pantelleria, Allied security had gone slack in liberated Libya. Counting on American complacency, the tri-motor SM82 “Marsupial” was mistaken by ground observers for a B-17, as it approached Benghazi.

They did not, however, notice two parachutes pop from the aircraft and float to earth. They belonged to a pair of volunteer commandos, who stealthily made their way to the Benina North Airport. Slipping past USAAF guards, Franco Cargnel and Vito Procida ran unopposed among the large collection of Flying Fortresses, Liberators, Marauders, and Mitchells. As the Italian demolition experts dashed unseen from the enemy air base, it suddenly erupted into thunderous chaos amid pyres of flames. Twenty American bombers were reduced to heaps of twisted, melted metal, and a dozen more warplanes damaged.

While the dramatic raid achieved its propaganda purposes, it could not conceal the looming presence of the Allies at Italy’s southern doorstep. But propaganda is a double-edged sword. While the Americans were duped into imagining that Pantelleria had been a required objective in their conquest of the Peninsula, Italians no less regarded this Central Mediterranean ‘Gibraltar’ as an impregnable bulwark against invasion. Its capture after less than a month of resistance came as a greater shock to them than the loss of North Africa, and national morale was badly shaken.

“The fall of the island burst on the Italians like a shock of cold water,” according to Mussolini himself. “One may say that the real war began with the loss of Pantelleria. The peripheral war on the African coast was intended to avert or frustrate such an eventuality.” Remaining hopes were pinned to successful resistance on the much larger, but nearer island, although now the possibility of enemy forces setting foot on the homeland itself was considered for the first time. “With the fall of Pantelleria,” he said, “the curtain went up on the drama of Sicily.”

Privately, however, he was realistically pessimistic, if hopeful–not for Sicily–but for the outcome of a broader strategy. He considered Sicilian resistance ultimately untenable. The island, thanks to enemy air supremacy, was almost as difficult to supply as Pantelleria had been, and the topography did not lend itself to defense. He nevertheless wanted Axis forces to put up a vigorous fight for Sicily, but only to waste the Allies’ time and resources. “There is an Italian proverb,” he told his commanders, “that he who defends himself is lost. A passive defense would certainly result in that conclusion. An active defense can, on the contrary, wear out the enemy forces and convince him of the futility of his efforts … We can still keep the situation under control, provided we have a plan and the will and capacity to apply it, as well as the necessary resources. Briefly, the plan can only be this: resist on land at all costs; hold up enemy supplies by the extensive use of our sea and air forces.”

Italy Prepares for Invasion II

Decisive battles could be fought later, in Italy itself, where the invaders would find themselves greatly disadvantaged by its mountainous interior. Twenty-two centuries earlier, Carthaginian armies ravaged the Peninsula. Despite a series of humiliating defeats, the Romans never gave up, and eventually expelled the invaders. In the process, the Roman people grew tough, ultimately creating the greatest empire in history. Mussolini wanted the same for 20th Century Italians, whose reputation for frivolity he considered too well deserved. The inevitable loss of Sicily and Allied landings in southern Italy would be necessary to set the stage for a real contest of arms to take place in the interior.

“In 1917, some provinces of the Veneto were lost, but no one spoke of ‘surrender’. Then, they spoke of moving the government to Sicily. Today, if we must, we shall move it to the Po Valley. There, we shall fight the enemy on our terms, not his,” he confided to Field Marshal Graziani, forgiven and reinstated after his 1940 failures in the Libyan Desert. “And in an environment strange to him, but known to us like the back of our hand.” Fascist propaganda, Mussolini stressed, must make at least something of this strategy clear to the Italian masses, who could otherwise despair when confronted by so many apparent failures to stop the Allied occupation of their country.

“Believe me,” Mussolini fatalistically enthused to Marshal Graziani, as Allied landing-craft were about to hit the Sicilian beach-heads, “invasion will have a winnowing effect on our people! It will separate the wheat from the chaff among Italians. In a life-or-death struggle, a people either courageously confronts it and rises to greatness, or knuckles under and disappears. A fifth of the population may stand against us, but almost as many will rally to the fasces, more radicalized than ever before, and with them we’ll regain the upper hand. The innocuous majority, motivated always by self-interest, will sit it out on the sidelines to applaud whomever wins. We’ll have the Revolution all over again! For the time being, it’s important the enemy is delayed and wasted out of his supplies as much as possible at Sicily and, soon after, in southern Italy itself, thereby allowing us time to prepare for the real fight in the mountains.”

Mussolini was keenly aware of the drastic disparity between Axis and Allied forces for the upcoming invasion. Hence, his dream of luring the Anglo-Americans into Italy’s rugged interior, where he would deal with them in the same way Roman legions crushed the occupying Carthaginians more than twenty centuries before.

“At the end of June,” he wrote, “a thousand omens went to show that the landings in Sicily would take place in the first half of July.” To oppose them, his Navy operated a dozen submarines, half as many motor torpedo-boats, five heavy and light cruisers, and only two battleships–the stalwart Littorio and the new Roma. Also new was the Italian Air Force’s Reggiane Re.2002, the Ariete, or ‘Ram’, and Macchi’s MC205, the redoubtable Veltro. But less than 100 Greyhounds and only fifty Arietes were on hand to confront an Allied air armada of more than 3,000 warplanes flying toward Sicilian beach-heads from bases in Malta.

The invasion had been preceded by a number of attacks carried out by USAAF heavy bombers against Italy’s naval bases on 28 June. American strategists were not sure how many enemy warships still survived, and, all too aware that the Regia Marina had risen from the dead more than once to wreck havoc on Allied operations, ordered the aerial destruction of the Italian Fleet. In a massive raid against Livorno, the Bari, a heavy cruiser, was sunk, the only casualty of its kind. Other capital ships were either too well protected or camouflaged, and U.S. reconnaissance photographs could not account for additional vessels Allied commanders knew still existed. The unknown whereabouts of these missing enemy warships were to keep the Americans looking over their shoulders throughout the campaign, not without reason, as events confirmed.

Allied operations against Sicily began officially just before daybreak, 9 July, when 500 Allied landing-craft carrying 100,000 troops in ten divisions with 800 tanks and other armoured vehicles set out for the beaches at Avola, twenty-nine kilometers south of Syracuse. A massive air-drop by thousands more U.S. paratroopers got under way at the same time. The operation went virtually unopposed, until British commandos arriving in gliders near Syracuse during the pre-dawn hours seized a key bridge over the Anapo. Two companies of hastily assembled Italian naval personnel armed with bolt-action Carcano rifles pushed them back to the other side of the river after intense fighting. But as the Regia Marina sailors tried to retake the bridge, they were caught in automatic weapons’ crossfire that virtually annihilated them.

Odds against the Regia Marina’s two battleships, eight destroyers and three dozen other serviceable warships of all kinds were not much better than those confronting their comrades in the air. Between them, the Allies operated six battleships, seven aircraft carriers, seven battle-cruisers, three heavy cruisers, five light cruisers, approximately 100 destroyers, and literally hundreds more destroyer-escorts, torpedo-boats, anti-aircraft cruisers, mine-sweepers, submarines, and corvettes.

Against an Allied air armada of 3,680 machines, combined Axis forces could muster more than 2,000 of their own, but only as much as sixty per cent, or as few as forty per cent of Italian aircraft were operational. The dauntless pilots of these available mounts nonetheless rushed to the defense of Sicily with a dawn raid on 10 July. Thirteen unescorted Alcione bombers flying out of Perugia skimmed just above the waves beneath radar detection. The old tri-motors surprised the invaders to score hits on a number of ships and sink several landing craft, though at the price of four Kingfishers lost.

Their costly success heralded a day of ferocious fighting, during which Italian airmen flew no less than 500 sorties in the first twenty-four hours of the Campaign, inflicting damage on Anglo-American forces, but suffering terrible casualties of their own. From 1 July to the 10th, Mussolini closely followed the action: “Enemy losses in planes were also considerable. No fewer than 312 machines were shot down by the Axis fighters and A.A. artillery.” In truth, Italian pilots alone destroyed 375 U.S. and British aircraft by that time. Axis losses were almost as high, although the majority of Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica planes were destroyed on the ground, not in aerial combat.

But as the massive invasion gathered momentum, operations became virtually suicidal. On the 13th, all but one of eight Picchiatellos–Italian-flown Stukas from the 121st Gruppo Tuffatori attacking the invaders at Augustus–were brought down. The following week, five of sixteen Ariete bombers belonging to the 5th Stormo d’Assalto were destroyed, even though they were vigorously protected by twenty Folgores and Messerschmitts. Regia Aeronautica fighter pilots were to fly an additional 152 sorties throughout July until 17 August, when Sicily fell. During the two-month campaign, some 800 Italian and 586 German aircraft were destroyed. Allied losses in the air approached 2,000.

While waves of assault troops washed ashore, engulfing all defensive installations around Syracuse, troops of the Italian XVI Corps rushed to relieve the outnumbered defenders, but were blocked by four-to-one odds on the ground. Even so, stiff resistance in southeastern Sicily threw the operation schedule off by three days, allowing Italo-German forces enough time to take up their pre-arranged positions. From these, they launched a series of counter offensives that threatened to hurl the invaders back into the sea, something more than Mussolini dared hoped for. As the British Second World War chronicler, Charles Messenger, observed, the Sicilian Campaign “proved to be much harder and longer than originally expected by the Allies”.

American troops landed in the southwest near the town of Gela situated atop a commanding hilltop, overcoming local opposition and digging in along a row of hills just south of Mount Castellucio, where they awaited the arrival of additional supplies before pushing further inland. The Italian 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment was detached from the Livorno (sometimes known as the Napoli) Division, stationed a day’s march away, to participate in a three-pronged operation aimed at expelling the invaders before their necessary resources could be put ashore. The Hermann Goering Panzer Division and Italian 33rd Infantry Regiment were supposed to attack from left and right, respectively, as the 3rd Battalion pinned down the enemy and pushed him into the arms of the pinchers.

While the Battalion column commanded by Lieutenant Colonel D.U. Leonardi was on the march, it was strafed by P-51 Mustangs just before sundown on 11 July. However, training for the aborted invasion of Malta kept losses down to just two soldiers killed, twenty wounded, and five trucks damaged. This low-level attack represented the only attempted interdiction by U.S. warplanes throughout the Gela phase of the invasion, because most Allied aircraft were diverted from the ground fighting on stand-by to oppose the momentarily expected appearance of the Italian Fleet. As events unfolded over the next few days, American infantry were made to keenly feel this absence of air cover.

On the morning of 11 July, the Axis pincer movement began with Leonardi’s officers and men storming across a flat, barren terrain offering little natural shelter, save for a few, widely scattered ditches. Intense and instantaneous American artillery fire dueled with the Battalion’s mortars and 75mm field guns, as casualties among the charging infantry soared. Helping to account for the carnage and responsible for slowing down the advance were eight American sharpshooters and a pair of machine-gunners firing from a small house on the battlefield. Hand-grenades lobbed through the window silenced them, and the attack surged forward. The Americans suddenly beat a quick withdrawal, during which Leonardi’s 3rd Battalion seized their positions, taking a number of weapons and prisoners from the U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment. Livorno heavy artillery arrived just then to blast the entire enemy line, from which the Yanks stampeded into the arms of the Hermann Goering Division and 33rd Infantry Regiment.

Responding to the G.I.s’ desperate pleas for help, Allied capital ships lying off shore opened up on the enemy’s pincer movement with a concentrated barrage unprecedented for its ferocity. Seasoned German infantry broke and ran for their lives, as the Italian regiment ground to a halt. Only 3rd Battalion infantrymen continued to move forward, although at an awful cost in human life. But in hand-to-hand combat, they eventually overran the new U.S. positions to take more prisoners and abandoned equipment. Colonel C. Martini, the Regiment commander, radioed the Battalion, praising its “superb behavior in battle,” and “the brilliant result attained”.

As the Yanks pulled away in a precipitous retreat resembling a rout, the shelling suddenly stopped, and the Italians sent out a reconnaissance platoon to determine the whereabouts of the invaders. Its leader, Lieutenant Baldassare, found “no traces of Americans in the area we patrolled. They are still falling back to Gela. Patrol stands near the Gela roadblock. Waiting for orders.”

“On Monday, the 12th, at 1 p.m.,” Mussolini proudly recalled, “all Rome and all the nation hung over the wireless with keen ears and eager hearts. Crowds gathered round the loudspeakers. Late that Sunday evening, it had been announced that Augusta had been retaken, and that following a counter-attack by the Napoli and Goering divisions, an enemy smokescreen in the Bay of Gela gave grounds for thinking that he might be re-embarking his men and material. Communiqué No. 1143 seemed to confirm these reports. It said, ‘In Sicily, the struggle continued bitterly and without pause throughout yesterday, during which the enemy tried vainly to extend the slight depth of the coastal strip occupied. The Italian and German troops after counter-attacking decisively have defeated enemy units at several points, compelling them in one sector to withdraw’.”


Ferdinand IV of Naples

In September 1814 Napoleon’s opponents gathered in Vienna to restore the Europe with which their enemy had so compulsively tampered. Although their work was interrupted by the bogeyman’s return and the Battle of Waterloo, they completed their task quickly and without acrimony. They had set out to restore the ‘legitimist’ pre-1789 order but soon understood the need to be flexible about borders and dynasties. In Italy the three territorial units of Napoleon’s reign were transformed into nine states, two fewer than in 1789.

Some Italians, chiefly in Milan, lobbied against the new arrangements. One of them told the British foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, that Italians were no longer the same people who twenty years earlier had been ‘happy and lethargic under the paternal rule of Austria’; they had now acquired ‘a greater love’ of their country and, furthermore, they had ‘learned to fight’. Castlereagh was not interested, and nor were his allies from Russia, Prussia and Austria. As in the eighteenth century, the European powers saw Italy as a diplomatic games board, a lucky resource for compensating and rewarding allies. If the Habsburgs renounced the Austrian Netherlands (which were briefly united to Holland before choosing to disunite to become Belgium), then they had to be allowed back into Italy. Since none of the powers wanted to see nationalism, independence or Jacobinism in the peninsula, they were happy to let Austria keep control and act as a barrier to the infiltration of French influence and ideas. Piedmont was awarded the republic of Genoa for a similar reason – the need to strengthen a state on the French border.

From the congress the Austrian emperor received the new kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, which he ruled through a viceroy. His brother Ferdinand was returned to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, while his daughter Marie-Louise (Napoleon’s second wife) became Duchess of Parma, a move that required compensation for the Bourbons of Parma in the shape of the former republic of Lucca, a city with which they had no connection. The rest of the peninsula was rearranged along more traditional lines. The papacy got the Papal States, the Habsburg-Este family was back in Modena, and the Bourbon King of Naples returned from Sicily to his mainland capital. In 1815 all the Italian states except Piedmont were ruled by Habsburgs and their relations or by their close and dependent allies.

Its conclusions demonstrated that the congress was more concerned with security and balance of power than with a strict interpretation of legitimacy. The two entirely ‘legitimate’ states missing from the post-Napoleonic map were the ancient republics of Venice and Genoa, while the republic of Lucca had been converted into a duchy. No doubt the French example had made the powers wary of the word ‘republic’, but European leaders were surely able to differentiate between Robespierre’s gory regime and the Venetian state that had predated it by 1,100 years. Genoa did not want to become part of reactionary Piedmont any more than Venice wished to be ruled by Frenchmen, Austrians or mainland Italians. Yet since they possessed no former dynasties to clamour for restoration, both were considered disposable and so were sacrificed unsentimentally to the territorial ambitions of neighbours.

The ‘Restoration’ has traditionally been seen as the Dark Age of modern Italy, a backward-looking era of clerical control and unenlightened authoritarianism. The word soon became synonymous with ‘reaction’ and ‘repression’ and later also with ‘foreign oppression’, since the Habsburg satellites could (and did) call on Austria to send troops if insurrections threatened them. Yet the picture is only true of certain places. The Duke of Modena may have refused all change and any reform – like his father-in-law, the King of Piedmont – but his neighbour the Duchess of Parma had different views: although she was evidently not pining for her husband, imprisoned on St Helena, she retained his system of administration in her duchy.

The restoration of the pope’s temporal power was indeed a return to a Dark Age, literally so at night because street lighting was regarded as the work of the devil. So were vaccination and railways: Gregory XVI, who was pope from 1831 to 1846, made the equation ‘Chemin de fer, Chemin d’Enfer’ and banned railway construction in the Papal States. Even the conservative Austrian chancellor Metternich, the chief architect of post-Napoleonic Europe, was appalled by a ‘detested and detestable’ government that had no idea how to govern. The inhabitants of the Romagna, accustomed to the administrative efficiency of Eugène’s Italian kingdom, were dismayed to be returned to the rule of cardinal-legates. They had never had much affection for Rome on the other side of the Apennines, where the roads were so bad that they found it quicker to reach their capital by sea. As Christopher Duggan has drily observed, ‘While all roads may once have led to Rome, in the 1820s only two did, and neither was very safe.’

No state was more proudly and profoundly reactionary than Piedmont. Its king, Victor Emanuel I, demonstrated his attitude by returning with his courtiers to Turin coiffured with powder and pigtails and wearing hats that had gone out of fashion with Frederick the Great. He then officially turned the clock back with a royal edict abolishing all laws made by Napoleon and returning his state to its unenlightened eighteenth century. His politics were almost a caricature of obscurantism: noble privileges came back along with guilds, internal customs barriers and the persecution of Jews and Protestants. Virtually nothing of the Napoleonic system was retained except an effective police force.

The successors of Victor Emanuel, his brother Charles Felix and his cousin Charles Albert, shared his conservative and intransigent instincts. Although the belated reintroduction of parts of the Napoleonic codes helped modernize the administration, Piedmont remained a benighted state until the middle of the century. Ecclesiastical courts survived, education was controlled by the Jesuits, and the government insisted on both civil and religious censorship. Newspapers were banned from printing words such as ‘nation’, ‘revolution’ and even ‘Italy’; you could use the word ‘liberty’ only if you were attacking it. Such a stultifying regime understandably encouraged writers and artists to abandon Turin for the freer and more cosmopolitan cities of Florence and Milan.

The restoration in Naples might have been an equally reactionary affair. In 1799 Ferdinand IV had sailed from Sicily intent on retribution and punishment for the defeated supporters of the Parthenopean Republic. Primitive feelings of vengeance overcame the monarch’s more usual good nature and, in violation of the terms of the surrender, he had ordered swift and drastic justice. Although often referred to as the Bourbon ‘Terror’, the repression was not quite on the scale that the dynasty’s enemies later claimed; about 200 people were executed. Yet the cost to the king’s reputation was high and enduring. One of his victims was Eleonora Pimentel, who had once written rhapsodies to the benevolence of Ferdinand’s government and who was hanged for subsequently writing in praise of liberty and equality in the republican newspaper. More dangerously for the future of his dynasty, the king alienated members of his aristocracy by executing several idealistic young noblemen. Most serious of all, his revenge was a propaganda gift for republicans and patriots because it helped to start and later sustain the myth that Italian unification was a saga of heroism and self-sacrifice.

In 1815 Ferdinand returned to Naples in a more restrained mood. He did not feel very grateful to the British, whose navy had protected him in Sicily, because they had bullied him, removed his queen from the court, appointed his more liberal son as regent and insisted on a constitution in Palermo providing for a free press and a bicameral parliament. Yet he was reluctant to antagonize the winning nations of the Napoleonic wars, some of which had flirted with the idea of retaining Murat. In any case he wanted a quieter life and no more enforced sojourns in Sicily. The process of government interested him even less than before, and he entrusted the administration to his minister Luigi Medici so that he could devote his time to the pleasures of eating, hunting and his children’s company. Sometimes he railed against the Napoleonic codes and wanted them to be abolished, as they had been in Piedmont, but he was too weak and too indifferent to overrule the astute Medici and his other ministers. The result was that feudal privileges were not brought back, the civil code was not abrogated, and Naples retained the political and institutional reforms of Murat and Joseph Bonaparte. Ferdinand derived some consolation, however, by disregarding the Sicilians and abolishing their British-inspired constitution. At Vienna it had been decided at last to unite the crowns of Naples and Sicily, and as a result he gave up his old titles (Ferdinand IV of Naples and Ferdinand III of Sicily) to become Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies. He now had a constitutional excuse not to permit a separate arrangement for Sicily.

The king died in 1825, sixty-six years after he had ascended the throne left to him on his father’s departure for Madrid. In his final decade he had presided over a reasonably tolerant regime and had stirred himself to combat smallpox, ordering clinics to be built in every village in Sicily and making vaccination compulsory for all (himself included). A perceptive Irish woman, Lady Blessington, who lived in Naples in his final years, described Ferdinand as ‘not a sovereign of superior mental requirements’ but ‘assuredly a good-natured man’. Although she herself was anti-Bourbon and preferred the circle that had supported Murat, she admitted that the people of Naples were not oppressed by their government. ‘We are told that Italians writhe under the despotism of their rulers,’ she wrote, ‘but nowhere have I seen such happy faces.’

The king was succeeded by his son Francis, who abandoned his liberalism at the start of his short reign, and then by his grandson Ferdinand II, who was also for some time a liberal. Like his recent ancestors, the young Ferdinand was ill-educated but on the whole humane and well-meaning, a prince who dutifully toured his dominions and renounced some of the crown’s hunting reserves. He also encouraged science, deciding to hold a Congress of Italian Scientists in Naples in 1845. Yet in the second half of his reign he became a conservative and was lambasted by liberals and later historians as a stupid, cruel and despotic tyrant. After the Sicilian revolution in 1848 he was nicknamed King ‘Bomba’ for briefly bombarding the walls of Messina, while conditions in Neapolitan prisons, which an outraged William Gladstone (at the time a Tory MP) visited in 1850 and denounced a year later, led to his ostracization by much of Europe, especially France and Britain which accepted Gladstone’s resounding though meaningless judgement of the regime as ‘the negation of God erected into a system of government’. Much of this was unfair or at least one-sided. Victor Emanuel II, King of Piedmont and later King of Italy, was not known as ‘Bomba’ although he had bombarded his own city of Genoa in the same revolutionary period; nor was his government condemned as the negation of God even though prison conditions in Piedmont were as terrible as they were in Naples. But in the 1850s Piedmont was emerging as the great European hope of British liberals, and the fate of Naples was to be cast as its antagonist.

The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was widely regarded, in Italy as in the rest of Europe, as a place of sloth and squalor, of grandeur and poverty, a place where landless labourers kept themselves just alive by scratching the parched soil of distant noblemen, where street urchins in the city picked the pockets of wealthy tourists and bands of brigands roamed with impunity in the hills outside, a land exploited and oppressed by an indolent monarchy, a frivolous aristocracy and a swarm of grasping clergy.

This picture was inherited and preserved by generations of historians until recently the stereotype was re-examined. Then it transpired that the kingdom was not just a land of latifondi, of vast desiccated estates in the interior that contained little except scrub for goats and some thin soil for wheat. Naples may not have had the irrigation or the natural advantages of Lombardy, but it was not an entirely backward place; wheat yields there were higher than in the Papal States. As for the latifondisti, it emerged that they were not all absentee landlords frittering away the produce of their workers by living in luxury in the capital. The latifondo was part feudal and part capitalist, part social structure and part business enterprise. Owners used their lands to feed themselves and the people who lived there, but they often grew food for foreign markets as well. The exported produce of the Barracco family, latifondisti from Calabria, included liquorice, olive oil, fine wool and cacciacavallo cheese.

The state of industry in Naples has been similarly disparaged: travel accounts of the period leave the impression that the inhabitants had never heard of the spinning jenny or the steam engine. Yet a modernized textile industry, aided by a sensible tariff policy, existed in the Apennine foothills in the early nineteenth century; not much later, an engineering industry was established around the capital. Naples in fact enjoyed a number of industrial ‘firsts’. It possessed the largest shipyards in Italy, it launched the first peninsular steamboat (1818) and it enjoyed the largest merchant marine in the Mediterranean; it also built the first iron suspension bridge in Italy, constructed the first Italian railway and was among the first Italian cities to use gas for street lighting. Admittedly, not all these achievements were as impressive as they sound. Naples may have built the first railway, but it was a short one, and its construction did not lead to a rapid expansion of the network. Most of the other states soon caught up and overtook it: by 1860, when the whole of southern Italy had only 125 miles of track, Lombardy had 360 and Piedmont, after a slow start, possessed over 500.

A glance at its economic statistics reveals how separate Naples as a trading partner was from the rest of Italy. In 1855 85 per cent of its exports were sent to Britain, France and Austria, while only 3 per cent crossed the border into the Papal States; Neapolitan trade with Britain was three times greater than that with all the other Italian states added together. Feelings of separateness were not confined to commerce; Naples possessed its own remarkable legal system, widely regarded as superior to any other in the peninsula. Outsiders noticed that the place was different, a distinct, cosmopolitan entity, a kingdom (with or without Sicily) with an ancient history and borders which, almost uniquely in Italy, were not subjected to rearrangement after every war. Moreover, Naples itself was still by far the largest city in Italy – indeed the third-largest in Europe after London and Paris – and had been a capital since Charles of Anjou had established himself there 600 years earlier. It was the only Italian city, thought Stendhal, that had ‘the true makings of a capital’; the rest were ‘glorified provincial towns like Lyon’. Before 1860 hardly anyone contemplated the idea that the kingdom might be destroyed and its territory annexed by an all-Italian state; and little in the subsequent history of that state indicates that the Neapolitans would have been unhappier if they had been left to govern themselves.

In their propaganda Italian patriots of the nineteenth century identified the Neapolitan Bourbons as the chief home-grown tyrants and Austrian Habsburgs as their foreign equivalents. Yet even they were unable to convince themselves that the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was an oppressive state. It was governed by Ferdinand III, son of the great Peter Leopold and brother of the Austrian emperor whose armies had lost four wars against Napoleon and whose daughter had been sacrificed to the French emperor’s desire to beget an heir. Ferdinand’s return to Florence in 1814 did not lead to a persecution of bonapartists or to the abolition of reforms. As in the eighteenth century, Tuscany was a tolerant and civilized place that preferred Jews to Jesuits and welcomed exiles from Piedmont and from other states. Tariffs were low, censorship was feeble, and the armed forces were almost non-existent, though in an emergency the state could call for Austrian troops. Ferdinand was succeeded in 1824 by his son Leopold II, another benevolent ruler until the revolutions of 1848 converted him – along with Pope Pius IX and the King of Naples – to conservatism. In the early part of his reign he reduced taxes, carried out liberal reforms, encouraged science and returned to that perennially elusive project of Tuscan rulers, the draining of the Maremma marshlands on the Tyrrhenian coast. Under Habsburg rule neither Mazzini nor Garibaldi nor anyone else could muster revolutionary support in Tuscany. Even at the time of the 1848 revolution few of their followers were found outside Florence and Livorno.

An easier target for nationalistic passion was Lombardy-Venetia, which, unlike Tuscany, was part of a foreign empire. Patriotic intellectuals fulminated against Austria not because it was a bad ruler but because it was an occupier, though for propaganda purposes they had to claim that it was both. They needed to label Austria as the oppressor to justify their title to be considered liberators. Thus a regime that matched Tuscany in providing the best government in the peninsula became the victim of myths and traducers.

The Emperor Francis had spent his childhood in Florence and retained his affection for Italy despite the repeated defeats of his armies there at the hands of Napoleon. Having no desire to revive the Ancien Régime, he presided distantly over a stable and generally peaceful state served by an efficient bureaucracy and an uncorrupted police force. Under Austrian rule Lombardy possessed the most productive agriculture and the most prosperous industry in Italy. Its inhabitants grumbled about taxation and conscription, but only a minority grumbled about the nature of the regime. The emperor’s chief error was to insist that his mentally deficient son Ferdinand should succeed him after his death in 1835.

Insurrections broke out and conspiracies were discovered in much of Italy (including Lombardy) in the 1820s and 1830s, but the Venetians showed little desire to remove a benign government and take part in them. While disappointed that they had been denied the chance to govern themselves, they were pleased that their city was the joint capital of the kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia and relieved that they were no longer governed by the French. Napoleon had stolen the bronze horses of St Mark’s and displayed them in Paris, but Austria brought them back and, with due ceremony, reinstated them on the cathedral’s façade.

The most engaging witness of French and Austrian rule in northern Italy was Henri Beyle, the charming and irrepressible Frenchman who wrote books as Stendhal and called himself Brulard in his memoirs. As a youth of seventeen, he came over the Great St Bernard in 1800, intent on joining General Bonaparte’s army as a subaltern of dragoons. Within weeks of his arrival in Lombardy, he had encountered the three great passions of his adult life: music, love and Italy. One evening he saw Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto and was overwhelmed by the experience. ‘To live in Italy and hear such music,’ he recalled in his autobiography, ‘became the basis of all my reasoning.’ In Milan he went to La Scala several times a week; he also became addicted to falling in love with difficult and sometimes unattainable women.

Stendhal spent Napoleon’s imperial years in the army, stationed in Brunswick and later serving on the quartermaster’s staff in the Russian campaign of 1812. Throughout this time he dreamed of returning to his ‘dear Italy’, which was his ‘true country’ and ‘in harmony’ with his nature. A print of Milan cathedral made him feel so nostalgic that he could not bear to look at it; the smell of veal cutlets cooked in breadcrumbs alla milanese made his yearning still more acute. He wanted his epitaph to begin with the words, ‘Arrigo Beyle, milanese’.

After the emperor’s abdication in 1814, Stendhal returned, unemployed but delighted, to Italy, where he lived for seven years and acquired a second identity, one that was less cynical and more enthusiastic than the one he had left behind in France. A romantic, though an untypically unlyrical one, he sympathized with the nascent patriotic feelings he found in the salons of Milan. But he did not greatly admire the patriotic intellectuals or believe that their aspirations for a united Italy were practical: for him even Naples was hardly Italian while Florence had no more in common with Otranto than it did with Le Havre. He knew there was much wrong with contemporary Italy but he could not bring himself to be harsh about the land of love and music even when he tried: The Charterhouse of Parma, apparently a novel about conspiracy, despotism and imprisonment, is really a love letter to Italy.

Stendhal was a bonapartist who ensured that the style of The Charterhouse was plain and unromantic by reading a few pages of Napoleon’s civil code each morning before writing. He claimed the emperor had ‘rudely transformed’ Milan, turning a city ‘hitherto renowned for nothing save over-eating into the intellectual capital of Italy’; he also claimed, in 1818, that Milan and Florence were mourning Napoleon, though feelings of bereavement were seldom evident outside the liberal circles he frequented. Yet although he was in the anti-Austrian camp, he did not pretend that Italians were suffering under rule from Vienna, and he admitted that people were happier and freer in Milan than they were in Rome or papal Bologna. Novels and operas that would have been banned in Turin could be published and performed in the Habsburg capitals of Venice and Milan. At La Scala in 1845 Giuseppe Verdi encountered no problems with his opera Giovanna d’Arco, but in Rome the censors stripped poor Joan of Arc of her name and even of her nationality so that eventually she appeared before audiences as Orietta of Lesbos, a Genoese heroine leading Greek islanders against the Turks.

Generations of European schoolchildren were taught that Napoleon had brought the idea of unity to Italy, that his defeat had led to a dismal interlude of oppression and reaction, and that Italy’s destiny had finally been fulfilled by the heroic endeavours of its patriots. Yet the determinist theory is completely unhistorical. Italy was no more preordained to unite than Scandinavia, Yugoslavia or North America. Equally mistaken are the ideas that Naples was a foul despotism deserving of destruction, that Lombardy-Venetia was a monument to foreign tyranny and that Piedmont was the liberal knight predestined to rescue Italy and lead her to glory and to unity. Two of the most distinguished Piedmontese of the era – both of them future prime ministers in Turin – realized that the propaganda was all nonsense. Count Cavour knew the truth about Habsburg rule in Lombardy but admitted that in his journalism of the 1840s he was ‘obliged to be over-patriotic and cry out against Austria along with everyone else’. As for the Marquess d’Azeglio, a more genuine patriot than Cavour, the propaganda seemed to him grotesque. ‘To call the present rulers of Italy tyrants,’ he wrote in 1846, ‘would be a childish absurdity.’

Tancred of Hauteville

Tancred of Hauteville, an 11th century crusader, by Jenny Dolfen

1: Norman miles, Hauteville family 2: Robert ‘le Guiscard’ d’Hauteville 3: Swabian miles, papal army

4: Lombard miles, Benevento

After the defeat of the rebellion, many of the knights who had traveled to Italy were once again adrift. Some returned to northern Europe, but others had begun to see that southern Italy, with its many disputes, weak central rule, and generally unwarlike population, might be a land of opportunity. Many turned for employment or adventure toward the Lombard principalities and the city-states along the western coast. The opportunities were there. The rulers of those states were a quarrelsome and fratricidal lot, rich economically but weak militarily, who were ready to hire the newly arrived Norman warriors to fight their feuds.

The three Lombard principalities of Benevento, Capua, and Salerno had many internal weaknesses. Over the years, they had lost power and capability as a result of their own internal divisions, through periodic efforts by Holy Roman emperors to assert their authority, and because of the resurgence of Byzantine power to their south and east. The princes competed ceaselessly against each other, against a background of internal faction and intrigue that was often encouraged by their neighbors. Brother plotted against brother, cousin against cousin, in a seemingly endless cycle of coups and struggles for dominance among the intricately interrelated princely families. The princes, moreover, no longer ruled unified or militarily powerful states. Over the years, their power had eroded to the benefit of a class of landholding but militarily feckless counts, or gastaldts, who often lived not on their lands but in the towns, and who did not owe their prince any military duty or, it appears, much loyalty. The princes were weakened still further by the fact that many Church enclaves in their territory were not only free of taxation by the princes, but enjoyed virtual independence as a result of papal or imperial protection. As a result of all these factors, the princes were often unsure on their thrones, had little control over much of their territories, and commanded only token armies.

The Lombard princes also had discordant relations with their coastal neighbors, the duchies of Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi. Though small, those city-states were inordinately rich; through their ports flowed the luxury goods of the East, not only from Constantinople but also from Arab capitals in Sicily, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Levant.’ The profits of this commerce benefited the Lombard states, which provided capital and the channels by which the goods found their way into northern Europe. But the princes were constantly at odds with the polyglot merchant oligarchies of those city-states and their elected dukes. Not satisfied in enjoying the silks, spices, perfumes, and jewels of the east, or their share in the benefits of the trade, the Lombard princes lusted to take over their smaller but temptingly rich neighbors, and maneuvered endlessly to do so.

Complicating the picture still further was an element of local competition between the two emperors and the popes. The popes had a particularly close interest in the affairs of the principalities, as they bordered the papal territories and contained important Church properties. The most important of those was the vital abbey of Monte Cassino in Capua, home to the Benedictine order of monks which was active at the time in promoting Church reform. But the emperors, too, had interest in Church properties, many of which over the years had been put under imperial protection. Popes and emperors clashed regularly over appointments, grants and rights of the southern Italian religious establishments, their mutual dependence at the strategic level put aside when it came down to specific issues of patronage or revenue. Similarly, the popes in Rome and the patriarchs in Constantinople fought over organization of the Church in southern Italy which, nominally united, was increasingly divided between Greek rite and Latin rite congregations. This competition between the major powers gave the local rulers some room to maneuver and to play the powers against each other, but it by no means improved their long-term security. In sum, the political situation in the region as well as inside each state, if not already unstable, was ripe for destabilization.

The Normans provided a new element in this witch’s brew of conflicts and weaknesses. In a practice that would in the end prove self-defeating, the local rulers each tried to gain advantage over his rivals by hiring these proven mercenaries. The suddenly footloose Norman knights found it relatively easy to find employment. Ever alert to the chances for self-advancement, they then found themselves in good vantage points from which to observe the problems and weaknesses of the Lombard states.

The Norman mercenaries found that the central issue of the moment in Lombard politics was the effort by the spectacularly predatory and unscrupulous ruler of Capua, Pandulf-called the Wolf of the Abruzzi – to dominate his neighbors. Pandulf, who had so preyed on his neighbors that he had been deposed and imprisoned for four years by Emperor Henry, had been released in 1027 by the successor emperor, Conrad, in a mistaken gesture of clemency. Seizing the opportunity, Pandulf immediately returned to the south, where he hired the most important of the Norman bands to help him reclaim his principality. He soon had regained Capua, dominated Salerno, and seized the Duchy of Naples, whose Byzantine protectors had been unable to defend it because of the recall of Katapan Bojoannes. Pandulf, much to the dread of his remaining neighbors, had rapidly become the dominant leader of the region. Emboldened but not sated, he also began a campaign of harassment and pillage of Church properties, including those of the imperially protected abbey of Monte Cassino. While these depredations further enriched him, they cost Pandulf in the long run, as they both infuriated the pope and made Emperor Conrad regret his decision to release him from his captivity.

Norman mercenaries had provided the muscle for Pandulf’s remarkable resurgence; he needed them if he was to continue to pursue his quest for domination. As a result, they suddenly found themselves in a position of some potential leverage. Their leader was a knight called Rainulf Dregnot, brother of a knight who had fought at Cannae. Rainulf had been elected leader by his fellows, under the old Norman custom, and had subsequently, through generous and competent leadership, attracted the largest and most loyal following of any Norman leader in the area. Rainulf was also the first of the Norman leaders to take a long-range view of his prospects, and to study how to position himself and his knights to best advantage.’ By 1029, Rainulf saw that it might not be in the long-run Norman interest to continue to help the unloved and unscrupulous Pandulf gain a commanding position in the region.

Other offers, as it happened, were available. The ex-ruler of Naples, Sergius, who was seeking help to recover his rights in that city, sent messengers to Rainulf suggesting that they make common cause. Negotiations led to an alliance, and Rainulf and his men changed sides. In short order, Pandulf had been expelled as lord of Naples, Sergius was back in his palace, and Rainulf was ready to accept the prize that presumably had been promised in the negotiations.

As a reward for the Normans’ services, Sergius granted Rainulf a newly created fiefdom at Aversa, a hamlet only eleven miles north of Naples but strategically located near the border with Capua. There, his mission would be to build a fortress to defend Neapolitan territory, as well as to raid into Pandulf’s lands and harass him militarily and economically. Sergius, overoptimistically as it turned out, also attempted to reinforce the tie with his new vassal both by raising him to count, and giving him the hand of his sister in marriage.

The County of Aversa thus became the first land directly controlled by a Norman in southern Italy. The place seems insignificant today, swallowed up as it is in the metropolis of Naples. But it was both strategically important in the struggle between Naples and Capua, and a key breakthrough in the Normans’ story in Italy. The status of Rainulf, now a landed man with ties to the ruling family of one of the Italian states, had changed entirely; he had joined the local power structure and was no longer merely an instrument of others’ power. Establishment of a Norman polity in southern Italy also marked a major turning point for the other Norman knights there. No longer were they required to dine at other lords’ tables as hired hands. They now had a foothold of their own and a rallying point, as well as a leader who had a sense of long-range mission, and was able to attract new recruits by his fair and resolute leadership. From his new fortress, Rainulf could build up his influence and wealth by raiding into Capua, and could strengthen his forces by attracting additional knights from the North. (The two elements indeed were inseparable, as it was the promise of booty from raiding that attracted new recruits.) The word was passed back to Normandy that these new opportunities existed. The response was rapid. In just a few years, the number of Rainulf’s knights had increased remarkably.

Rainulf’s new status as landholder and leader of a powerful band of armed men gave him increased bargaining power vis-a-vis the princes who wanted his services, or needed his neutrality. Profiting from his enhanced position, Rainulf embarked on a series of moves that, however perfidious they might seem to modern readers, succeeded in expanding his power and aligning him with the ascending power in each turn of fortune. His first move came after only five years’ service to Naples and followed, if it did not result from, the death of his Neapolitan wife. He deserted his sponsor Sergius to go back into alliance with Pandulf. This crassly opportunistic act, which led to the ruin of Sergius, can be explained in part by a prize which Pandulf dangled before the new widower’s eyes: another advantageous marriage, this time to Pandulf’s niece, daughter of the ruler of Amalfi. By this marriage, Rainulf created still another claim to respectability within the kinship-oriented Lombard ruling class. But Rainulf and his men in turn soon deserted the Capuan ruler. Perhaps disturbed by Pandulf’s gratuitous cruelty, tyrannous behavior and arrogance, or perhaps just looking to join forces with the ascending power of the region, they left Pandulf to take up alliance with the increasingly powerful Prince of Salerno, Guaimar IV. That young prince had taken up arms against Pandulf – his uncle – when the latter had tried to rape one of Guaimar’s nieces.’

Through each of his changes of loyalty, Rainulf managed to hold onto his fief of Aversa, and in fact to expand it. In this rank opportunism Rainulf, like many of the Normans in Italy, was not deterred by petty matters of loyalty in deciding where his self-interest lay. The general objective for those soldiers of fortune seems to have been to take sides when it benefited them to do so, but mostly to maintain some sort of balance of power between the rival states, so that there should always be a market for their services, and an opening for their advancement.

Among the knights who came to Italy around 1035 were two brothers from a knightly family in western Normandy, William and Drogo. From the small town of Hauteville near Coutances, on the Cotentin peninsula, the two were the elder sons of a minor knight by the name of Tancred. Tancred, a second-generation Norman whose grandfather had come at the time of Rollo, had little to distinguish himself other than a remarkable virility. Indeed Tancred succeeded, over the years, in fathering no fewer than twelve grown sons and an unknown number of girls. His first wife, Muriella, bore William, Drogo, Humphrey, Geoffrey, and Serlo before she died, while the second wife, Fressenda, gave birth to Robert, Manger, another William, Aubrey, Humbert, Tancred, and Roger. Of the boys’ family life, or of their mothers’, we know little. According to the later chroniclers, Fressenda raised all the sons in a spirit of even-handedness, but it must have been a difficult job to retain harmony amongst such a crowd of young men, trained for combat and assertiveness. Subsequent events, indeed, would point to a certain amount of friction between the sons of the first and second marriages, as well as the brothers as individuals.

To produce and raise a family of such a size was a rarity even in those days. The effort to train and equip twelve sons for a knightly career was a major one, and we do not know how Tancred managed it. His could not have been a wealthy family, so there must have been a good deal of scrimping as well as pooling of family resources to outfit the sons as new knights. Probably, the boys were sent, as was a normal custom, to the households of wealthier lords, where they served their apprenticeships in the bearing of arms and courtly behavior. Here also they would eventually have earned their knighthoods in a simple ceremony -the passage to knight was not yet as freighted with chivalric symbolism as it was in later centuries. They also learned the basic set of political skills necessary for success in the competitive atmosphere of large feudal households. Wherever and however Tancred’s sons were trained, they apparently developed few if any lasting ties from their early days, retaining their loyalty, once embarked on their knightly careers, primarily for their family and their own self-interest.

What was even rarer was that so many of the sons distinguished themselves in life. Through good genes, good training, or a happy combination, they succeeded. Not the least striking element of their success was the fact that most of Tancred’s sons who went to Italy managed to remain, by and large, in robust good health in a time of appalling disease and disastrous healthcare practices. But their military, and later political, achievements set this large group of brothers apart from their contemporaries. The history of Norman successes in Italy and Sicily is in many ways the story of this family of Tancred’s, and the remarkable relations that united and at times estranged the brothers.

The dilemma of Tancred’s family was simple: not enough land, not even for half the number of sons who passed to adulthood. Tancred had at one time performed a feat of arms that had drawn him to the duke’s notice and provided a livelihood in the duke’s household for some time. It had not, however, gained him more land, the necessary key to his sons’ future. They would have to become household knights, earning their living at another lord’s table if they could even find such work, or else strike out to find opportunities on their own. According to the chronicles,’ they were all too aware that other Norman families in similar circumstances had either divided the land among the sons in holdings so small as to be incapable of supporting a knightly household, or had been torn apart by family feuds after one son had been chosen to inherit the family land. Accordingly, they reached a family decision: each son, on reaching his maturity, would go off and seek his living as he could. To the great good fortune of the Hautevilles, the successes of the first Normans in Italy opened up attractive possibilities for employment in the south, and an uncle who had recently returned from pilgrimage in Italy advised the young Hautevilles to take their chances there.

William and Drogo, the elder two sons, were the first to leave for Italy, followed not long afterwards by a third brother, Humphrey. In the end, eight of the twelve sons of Tancred would find their fortunes- and fame for their family – in Italy. Only Serlo of the first set of brothers stayed on in Normandy, where he served in the household of Duke Robert -but only after having spent a three years’ exile in England as punishment for some infraction against the duke’s peace. Still, as we shall see, even his son Serlo eventually traveled to join his increasingly successful uncles in Italy, lured by prospects much brighter than trying to make a living in Normandy.

Three of the second set of brothers- Aubrey, Humbert, and Tancred, it appears- stayed in Normandy but left no mark on history. At least two of the daughters married knights who also went to Italy. Indeed, the family’s line in Normandy eventually disappeared, even Fressenda having gone to join her sons and grandsons in Italy after the death of the senior Tancred. Today, nothing in the little Norman village of Hauteville la Guichard would remind a visitor that it was the place of origin of the kings of Sicily, were it not for a small plaque erected in recent times.

In Italy, however, the newly arrived knights from Hauteville did not sign up with Rainulf of Aversa. At first they hired to Pandulf of Capua. But, like Rainulf and many other Norman knights, they eventually gravitated to the service of Guaimar of Salerno and in opposition to the prince of Capua. The move was fortuitous, because Pandulf was about to suffer another turn in his fortune. His attacks on Church property, added to Guaimar’s newly declared opposition, had contributed to another of those climactic descents into Italy of a Holy Roman emperor, this time Conrad II. Conrad, acting to restore order in his southern realm and to protect the property of the Church against Capua’s depredations, deposed Pandulf once again during a lightning trip south in the summer of 1038. Pandulf, beaten but scarcely vanquished, fled to Constantinople where he began plotting still another comeback, this time with Byzantine support.

Before returning to Germany, Emperor Conrad placed Guaimar of Salerno on the princely seat of Capua. Backed with this imperial authority and the force of his new Norman auxiliaries, Guaimar moved rapidly. He helped the newly installed abbot of Monte Cassino begin a long effort to drive out Pandulf’s appointees and restore the Church’s authority over its usurped or occupied lands. Guaimar also reestablished Salerno’s overlordship over Sorrento, and succeeded as well in getting the Amalfitans to elect him as their ruler.

Soon, Guaimar had become the leading Lombard ruler, and he would lead Salerno into its coming golden age. In this popular and gifted leader, the Normans had found a sponsor who was prepared to enter with them into a long-term and mutually enriching alliance. His first step had been to assure that the emperor, before his return to Germany, confirmed Rainulf as Count of Aversa. There was, however, one important change in that confirmation: the fief was to be held as a dependency of Guaimar’s Salerno, rather than of Naples. Thus Rainulf, linked to his new sponsor and now an imperial vassal, rose still another step up the ladder of respectability. The Normans were in southern Italy to stay.

For Tancred of Hauteville’s sons William and Drogo, service with Prince Guaimar would soon provide the opportunities by which they would come to distinguish themselves, and to begin the remarkable success story of the Hauteville clan.

Africa Colonial Wars 1919–1939 Part II

Franco’s demands had been modest compared to those made by Mussolini, for whom the French surrender was a heaven-sent opportunity to implement his long-term plans for a vast Italian empire in Africa. In 1940 he asked the Germans for Corsica, Tunisia, Djibuti and naval bases at Toulon, Ajaccio and Mers-el-Kebir on the Algerian coast, and he was planning to invade the Sudan and British Somaliland. Mussolini’s flights of fancy extended to the annexation of Kenya, Egypt and even, in their giddier moments, Nigeria and Liberia. Hitler’s response was frosty, for at that time his Foreign Ministry was preparing a blueprint ‘to rationalise colonial development for the benefit of Europe’. An enlarged Italian empire was not part of this plan.

Fascism had always been about conquest. As a young misfit spitefully living on the margins of society, Mussolini had convinced himself that ‘only blood could turn the bloodstained wheels of history’. This remained his creed: violence was a valid and desirable means for a government to gets its own way at home and abroad. ‘I don’t give a damn!’ was the slogan of Mussolini’s Blackshirt hoodlums, and he applauded it as ‘evidence of a fighting spirit which accepts all the risks’. Violence was essential for Italy to attain both its rightful place in the world and the territorial empire that would uphold its pretensions. Yet Mussolini’s projected empire was not just about accumulating power: he promised that it would, like its Roman predecessor, bring enlightenment to its subjects. Italians were fitted for this noble task for, as the Duce insisted, ‘It is our spirit that has put our civilisation on the by-ways of the world.’

Cinema informed the masses of the ideals and achievements of the new Rome. A propaganda short of 1937 entitled Scipione l’Africano blended past and present glories. There was footage of Mussolini’s recent visit to Libya, where he is seen watching a spectacular enactment of Scipio’s victory over Carthage with elephants and Italian soldiers dressed as Roman legionaries. It was followed by scenes of a mock Roman triumph alternated with shots of the new Caesar, Mussolini, inspecting his troops. There are also images of babies and mothers surrounded by children as a reminder of the Duce’s campaign to raise the birth rate, which would, among other things, provide a million colonists for an enlarged African empire.

Fascism’s civilising mission was graphically portrayed in the opening sequence of the 1935 propaganda film Ti Saluto, Vado in Abissinia, produced by the Fascist Colonial Institute. Against a soundtrack of discordant music there is grisly footage of shackled slaves, a baby crying as its cheeks are scored with tribal marks, a leper, dancing women, an Abyssinian ras (prince) in his exotic regalia, the Emperor Haile Selassie on horseback inspecting modern infantrymen and, to please male cinemagoers, close-ups of naked girls dancing. Darkness and grotesque images give way to light with the first bars of the jaunty popular song of the film’s title, and there follows a sequence of young, cheerful soldiers in tropical kit boarding a troopship on the first stage of their journey to claim this benighted land for civilisation. Newsreels celebrated the triumphs of ‘progress’: one showed a Somali village ‘where the machinery imported by our farmers helps the natives to till the fertile soil’, and in another King Victor Emmanuel inspects hospitals and waterworks in Libya. In the press, Fascist hacks flattered Italy as ‘the mother of civilisation’ and ‘the most intelligent of nations’.


Progress required Fascist order. Within a year of Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922, operations began to secure Libya completely, in particular the south-western desert region of Fezzan. Progress was slow, despite aircraft, armoured cars and tanks, and so in 1927 Italy, like Spain, reached for phosgene and mustard gas. Under Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Italian forces pressed inland across the Sahara, herded rebels and their families into internment camps and hanged captured insurgents. The fighting dragged on for a further four years, and ended with the capture, trial and public execution in 1931 of the capable and daring partisan leader, Omar el-Mukhtar. Like Abd el-Krim, he became a hero to later generations of North African nationalists: there are streets named after him in Cairo and Gaza.

Somalia too got a stiff dose of Fascist discipline. Indirect rule was abandoned, and the client chiefs who had effectively controlled a third of the colony were brought to heel by a war waged between 1923 and 1927. The bill swelled Somalia’s debts, which were slightly reduced by a programme of investment in irrigation and cash crops, all of which were subsidised by Rome. Italians were compelled to buy Somalian bananas, but their consumption merely staved off insolvency. The flow of immigrants was disappointingly small: in 1940 there were 854 Italian families tilling the Libyan soil and 1,500 settlers in Somalia.

Having tightened Italy’s grip over Libya and Somalia, Mussolini turned to what was, for all patriots, the unfinished business of Abyssinia, where an Italian army had suffered an infamous defeat at Adwa in 1896. Fascism would restore national honour and add a potentially rich colony to the new Roman Empire, which would soon be filled by settlers.

Known as Ethiopia by its Emperor and his subjects, Abyssinia was one of the largest states in Africa, covering 472,000 square miles, and it had been independent for over a thousand years. It was ruled by Haile Selassie, ‘Lion of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia’, a benevolent absolutist who traced his descent to Solomon and Sheba. His autocracy had the spiritual support of the Coptic Church, which preached the virtues of submission to the Emperor and the aristocracy. One nobleman, Ras Gugsa Wale, summed up the political philosophy of his caste: ‘It is best for Ethiopia to live according to ancient custom as of old and it would not profit her to follow European civilisation.’

Nevertheless, that civilisation was encroaching on Abyssinia and would continue to do so. In 1917 the railway between French Djibuti and Addis Ababa had been opened; among other goods transported were consignments of modern weaponry for Haile Selassie’s army and embryonic air force (it had four planes in 1935), and European businessmen in search of concessions. The Emperor was a hesitantly progressive ruler who hoped to achieve a balance between tradition and what he called ‘acts of civilisation’.

Frontier disputes provided Mussolini with the pretext for a war, but he had first to overcome the hurdle of outside intervention orchestrated by the League of Nations. Abyssinia was a member of that body which, in theory, existed to prevent wars through arbitration and, again in theory, had the authority to call on members to impose sanctions on aggressors. The League was a paper tiger: it had failed to stop the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931, and economic sanctions against Italy required the active cooperation of the British and French navies. This was not forthcoming, for neither power had the will for a blockade that could escalate into a war against Italy whose army, navy and air force were grossly overestimated by the British and French intelligence services. Moreover, both powers were becoming increasingly uneasy about Hitler’s territorial ambitions and hoped, vainly as it turned out, to enlist the goodwill of Mussolini. An Anglo-French attempt to appease Mussolini by offering him a chunk of Abyssinia (the Hoare-Laval Pact) failed either to deter him or win his favour. Interestingly, this resort to the cynical diplomacy of Africa’s early partition provoked outrage in Britain and France.

Neither nation was prepared to strangle Italy’s seaborne trade to preserve Abyssinian integrity, and so Mussolini’s gamble paid off. The fighting began in October 1935, with 100,000 Italian troops backed by tanks and bombers invading from Eritrea in the north and Somalia in the south. Ranged against them was the small professional Abyssinian army armed with machine-guns and artillery and far larger tribal levies raised by the rases and equipped with all kinds of weapons, from spears and swords to modern rifles.

The course of the war has been admirably charted by Anthony Mockler, who reminds us that, despite the disparity between the equipment of the two armies, the conquest of Abyssinia was never the walkover the Italians had hoped for. In December a column backed by ten tanks was ambushed in the Takazze valley. One, sent on a reconnaissance, was captured by a warrior who stole up behind the vehicle, jumped on it and knocked on the turret. It was opened and he killed the crew with his sword. Surrounded, the Italians attempted to rally around their tanks and were overrun. Another tank crew were slain after they had opened their turret; others were overturned and set alight, and two were captured. Nearly all their crews were killed in the rout that followed and fifty machine-guns captured. The local commander, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, was shaken by this reverse and struck back with, aircraft which attacked the Abyssinians with mustard-gas bombs.

As in Morocco, gas (as well as conventional bombs) compensated for slipshod command and panicky troops, although the Italians excused its use as revenge for the beheading in Daggahur of a captured Italian pilot after he had just bombed and strafed the town. Denials rather than excuses were offered when bombs were dropped on hospitals marked with red crosses.

Intensive aerial bombardment and gas swung the war in Italy’s favour. In May 1936 Addis Ababa was captured and, soon after, Haile Selassie went into exile. He was jeered by Italian delegates when he addressed the League of Nations in Geneva, and was cheered by Londoners when he arrived at Waterloo. He remained in England for the next four years, sometimes in Bath, where his kindness and charm were long remembered. In Rome an image of the Lion of Judah was placed on the war memorial to the dead of the 1896 war; Adwa had been avenged. Mussolini’s bombast rose to the occasion with declarations that Abyssinia had been ‘liberated’ from its age-old backwardness and miseries. Liberty took odd forms, for the Duce decreed that henceforward it was a crime for Italians to cohabit with native women, which he thought an affront to Italian manhood, and he forbade Italians to be employed by Abyssinians.

In Abyssinia Italians assumed the role of master race with a hideous relish. Efforts were made to exterminate the Abyssinian intellectual elite, including all primary school teachers. In February 1937 an attempt to assassinate the Viceroy Graziani prompted an official pogrom in which Abyssinians were randomly murdered in the streets. Blackshirts armed with daggers and shouting, ‘Duce! Duce!’ led the way. The killings spread to the countryside after Graziani ordered the Governor of Harar to ‘Shoot all – I say all – rebels, notables, chiefs’ and anyone ‘thought guilty of bad faith or of being guilty of helping the rebels’. Thousands were slaughtered during the next three months.

The subjugation of Abyssinia proved as difficult as its conquest. Over 200,000 troops were deployed fighting a guerrilla war of pacification. Italy’s new colony was turning into an expensive luxury: between 1936 and 1938 its military expenses totalled 26,500 million lire. In the event of a European war, this huge army would deter an Anglo – French invasion and, as Mussolini hoped, invade the Sudan, Djibuti and perhaps Kenya, while forces based in Libya attacked Egypt. Viceroy Graziani felt certain that Britain was secretly helping Abyssinian resistance and Mussolini agreed, although he wondered whether the Comintern might also have been involved.

By 1938, his own secret service was disseminating anti-British propaganda to Egypt and Palestine via Radio Bari. In April 1939, alarmed by the flow of reinforcements to Italian garrisons in Libya and Abyssinia, the British made secret preparations for undercover operations to foment native uprisings in both colonies. At the same time, parties of young Italians, ostensibly on cycling holidays, spread the Fascist message in Tunisia and Morocco, and Jewish pupils were banned from Italian schools in Tunis, Rabat and Tangier. Africa was already becoming embroiled in Europe’s political conflicts.


Outside Germany and Italy, European opinion about the Abyssinian War was sharply divided: anti-Fascists of all kinds were against Mussolini, while right-wingers tended to support him on racial grounds. Sir Oswald Mosley, whose British Union of Fascists was secretly underwritten by Mussolini, dismissed Abyssinia as a ‘black and barbarous conglomeration of tribes with not one Christian principle’. Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, urged his readers to back Italy and ‘the cause of the white race’ whose defeat in Abyssinia would set a frightening example to Africans and Asians. Evelyn Waugh, who was commissioned by Rothermere to cover the war, confided to a friend his hopes that the Abyssinians would be ‘gassed to buggery’.

Such reactions, and the moral insouciance of Britain and France, shocked educated Africans in West Africa. The Abyssinian episode had tarnished the notion of benevolent imperialism cherished in both nations, and seemed to condone views of Africans as a primitive people, beyond the pale of humanity as well as civilisation. In the words of William Du Bois, an American black academic and champion of black rights, the Abyssinian War had shattered the black man’s ‘faith in white justice’. Harlem blacks had volunteered to fight, but had been refused visas by the American government. Du Bois believed that their instincts had been right, for in the future, ‘The only path to freedom and equality is force, and force to the uttermost.’