Red Sea Convoys

HMS Kimberley (photographed in 1942)

Italian destroyer Pantera

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

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

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

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

Conditions: Bright moon, calm sea

Allied ships—

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

BN7: thirty-two merchant ships and tankers

Italian ships—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attack on Convoy BN14, 3 February 1941

Conditions: n/a

Allied ships—

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

Convoy BN14: thirty-nine freighters

Italian ships—

DD: Pantera, Tigre, Sauro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Franz Joseph’s Empire, Sisi, and Hungary I

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph with his troops at the Battle of Solferino, 1859

On 6 October 1849, the former prime minister of Hungary, Count Louis Batthyány, was taken into the courtyard of the main gaol of Pest. An Austrian military court had condemned him to hang for treason on account of his role in promoting Hungary’s independence, but he had slit his throat several days earlier in an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. So the court changed the penalty to death by firing squad. Batthyány was so weak that he had to be carried to the place of execution; he died slumped on a chair. Several hours before, at five thirty AM, thirteen generals in what had been the army of independent Hungary were also executed in Arad Castle on the same grounds of treason, the majority by hanging. The noose was a harsh punishment, for death came not from the sudden breaking of the neck but from slow suffocation. It was intended to be humiliating, too, for the victim writhed in his agony and, at expiry, his bowels usually opened.

The executions of Batthyány and the generals came at the end of a bloody war between Hungary and the Habsburgs that had begun with Jelačić’s invasion. The country had held out for almost a year—its resources and Hungarian population ably mobilized by Kossuth and its armies expertly commanded. Even so, it was only in April 1849 that the Hungarian government proclaimed the country’s formal independence, deposing ‘the perjured house of Habsburg’ and appointing Kossuth governor and regent. Until then, Hungary’s politicians had held by the conviction that they were acting lawfully, in accordance with the terms of the April Laws, as granted by Emperor Ferdinand.

Finally, in June 1849 a Russian army invaded Hungary at the request of the new emperor, Franz Joseph (1848–1916). With the Austrian general von Haynau pressing from the west and General Paskevich’s Russians from the north, resistance collapsed. Kossuth meanwhile escaped into the Ottoman Empire. For the remainder of his long life (he died in 1894), Kossuth inveighed against Habsburg rule in Hungary, electrifying audiences in Great Britain and the United States with his oratory. His claim that he had learned English from reading Shakespeare in prison may not be true, but the story enhanced his reputation and the cause of a free Hungary. Visiting England in 1851, Kossuth received a rapturous welcome, feted by tens of thousands in every city in which he spoke. By contrast, when Haynau came to London, he was set upon by the draymen of Barclay and Perkins brewery, pelted with dung, and chased down Borough High Street.

The killing of Batthyány and the generals was the work of the young Franz Joseph, who rejected his ministers’ proposal of a comprehensive amnesty. But the emperor was not yet finished with ‘the scaffold and the bloodbath’, as one former prime minister put it, and he gave Haynau free rein in Hungary. A hundred executions followed, and several thousand long gaol sentences. Even when the Austrian prime minister, Prince Schwarzenberg, ordered Haynau to desist from killing, he carried on, until finally dismissed in July 1850. Haynau was sufficiently insensitive to buy on retirement an estate in Hungary. He never understood why his neighbours did not invite him to dinner.

Emergency rule continued in Hungary until 1854, and some offences remained under the jurisdiction of military courts for several years longer. On top of this, Hungary’s counties were abolished and replaced by administrative districts headed by appointees of the interior ministry in Vienna. Croatia, Transylvania, and the Banat together with the neighbouring Vojvodina were additionally ruled separately from Vienna as crown lands. All institutions of self-government were abolished, and German was made the language of administration. Tasks previously performed by the counties and noble landlords were now undertaken by bureaucrats, many of whom were recruited from elsewhere in the Austrian Empire.

The breakup of Hungary into districts ruled from Vienna was part of a plan that Schwarzenberg (or at least someone close to him) had hatched as early as December 1848. Developments elsewhere were more haphazard. As one of his first acts, Franz Joseph had closed the imperial parliament that had been meeting in Kroměříž. In the early hours of 7 March 1849, troops with bayonets had entered the castle where the parliament met and blocked the entrances, after which they had scoured the city, arresting several of the more radical deputies. In place of the constitutional proposals the parliament had devised, Franz Joseph imposed a constitution of his own, which as he explained was more suited to the times and less influenced by remote and theoretical ideas.

The Decreed or March Constitution was in some respects a good one. It was centralist in the sense that it envisaged one elected parliament for the whole of the Austrian Empire, including Hungary, a single central government, and one coronation. Although the emperor retained strong powers, there were layers of elected bodies, which possessed a devolved authority. The constitution additionally confirmed the abolition of serfdom previously agreed by the imperial parliament, legal equality, and that ‘all national groups are equal and that every national group has an inviolable right to the use and cultivation of its language and nationality.’

For all its merits, the constitution was a cynical ploy. Franz Joseph was out to make his mark, and he was lured by Schwarzenberg’s dream of joining the entire Austrian Empire to the German Confederation to create a massive new territorial bloc in Central Europe, in which the Habsburg emperor would be politically dominant. To win over the German princes to the scheme, Franz Joseph needed to appear as a constitutionalist who was ready to be bound by legal constraints. But by the middle of 1851, it was clear that the German rulers would not agree to a merger with the Austrian Empire, preferring to renew the Confederation set up after the defeat of France in 1814. By this time, too, Franz Joseph was casting envious eyes on Napoleon III of France, who had, as the emperor admiringly described, ‘seized the reins of power in his hands’ and made himself much more than ‘a machine for writing his signature.’

Implementation of the March Constitution went at a snail’s pace, and its provisions on local elected government were drastically pared back. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1851, Franz Joseph issued a series of instructions, known collectively as the Sylvester Patent, that abolished the March Constitution outright and gave himself the sole right to make laws. (31 December is St Sylvester’s Day; a patent was a type of decree.) The coup was completed after the death of Schwarzenberg in April 1852, when Franz Joseph declared that he would now act in the capacity of prime minister.

The Sylvester Patent introduced a decade of neo-absolutism or neo-Caesarism, when Franz Joseph ruled as a dictator. Both terms are recent ones—at the time, the type of government practised by Franz Joseph was known simply as absolutism or more tellingly as bureaucratic absolutism, for the emperor imposed his will through the administrative apparatus. But the bureaucrats also had their own political agenda, which was to maintain the reforming programme of Joseph II, with its belief in the wisdom of state management and in social and economic progress directed from above. They even had a name for themselves: the ‘party of Enlightenment.’

Altogether, the Habsburg civil service numbered in the 1850s around fifty thousand persons, but this included junior and ancillary staff. About ten thousand belonged to the higher ‘policy service’ (Konzeptdienst), and almost all of these had received a university education, mostly in law. Those in the higher branches were overwhelmingly liberal in disposition and outlook, and disproportionately represented in the reading clubs and, during 1848, in the politics of reform. They were liberals in the sense of believing in individual empowerment, through education, legal equality, freedom of the press and of association, and the removal of economic constraints. They saw a strong state as the vehicle for a liberal programme of reform and were prepared to make concessions to it—press freedom was an early casualty. But by endorsing state intervention, the bureaucrats ‘fattened the state up’, turning it into a Leviathan that devoured the individual freedoms that their liberalism had originally championed.

The achievements of bureaucratic absolutism were massive—as one historian has put it, ‘a Josephinist fantasy come true.’ There were new institutes of science, regulations on safety in mines and the workplace, a penny-stamp postal service, new roads, telegraphs, and railways. By 1854, a thousand kilometres of track had been laid, and the Linz to České Budějovice (Budweis) line, originally built in 1832, was converted from horse to steam power. For the roads, almost ten million cubic metres of stone were laid in just three years. Experts recruited from the London Board of Works helped to dredge and canalize the Danube and Tisza rivers. Infrastructural expansion was underpinned by burgeoning coal and iron production, by a developing banking sector for commercial loans, and by the removal of customs barriers that made the Austrian Empire into a common market. Vienna, too, was transformed, with the old city walls torn down and a spacious ‘Ring’ built in its place to house the new class of entrepreneurs and industrialists created by economic modernization.

The peasantry had been freed by Joseph II in the sense that they were able to leave the land and marry without the lord’s consent. But the land they farmed still belonged to the lord, on which account they owed him dues and services performed by hand. In the early months of the revolution, the Hungarian diet had committed itself to giving the peasants the lands they farmed, but elsewhere promises were vague and piecemeal, with the terms of emancipation deferred until the imperial parliament met. The difficulties were that the lords needed some sort of compensation for their loss and that the land that the peasants farmed was of varying legal quality—some was ancestral peasant property, farmed over generations; other land was leased from the lord under contract, or else it was common land or had been cleared by the peasant personally from scrub.

The imperial parliament had shirked its obligation to facilitate emancipation by hiding behind generalities. After 1849, however, the government made a determined attempt to resolve the issues arising from emancipation. Ancestral land became the peasants’, in its entirety, with no compensation paid to landlords. All the rest was compensated for, with the state bearing the brunt of the burden, which it did through the expedient of printing bonds and distributing them slowly. The terms of compensation were worked out by commissions, and the new landowning peasants were obliged to enter details of their properties in land registers. These also recorded liens—whether the property was now leased out or mortgaged—and neighbours, kinsmen, and lenders frequently challenged the contents of the registers. The courts in Hungary alone were in the second half of the century handling seldom fewer than three hundred thousand cases a year of disputed entries, with a backlog extending to over a million.

In the past, minor disputes such as these would have gone in the first instance to manor courts, but with the abolition of landlordism had also gone the landowners’ courts and their gratis contribution to the administration of the countryside. The state had now to fill the gap, establishing across the empire 1,500 new courts and supervisory offices. Bureaucrats were despatched to the countryside to see to the implementation of directives from the centre. Their task was a hard one. The interior minister, Alexander Bach, ordered civil servants in Hungary to buy an uncomfortable uniform based on a Hungarian cavalryman’s, but it cost half a year’s salary and earned them ridicule as ‘Bach hussars.’ Underresourced and living in shabby conditions, they found it impossible to reconcile their obligations with the day-to-day realities of the countryside. Arriving in one Hungarian village, a ‘Bach hussar’ found there to be no prison: convicts were instead lodged unguarded in an inn and given a daily allowance for food.

Bach’s instructions for the civil service stressed the importance of stability, routine, and predictability of outcome in the legal and administrative process. To that end, the Austrian civil law was extended in the 1850s across the whole of the Austrian Empire, replacing in Hungary and Transylvania the arcane and largely unwritten customary law. But to meet local circumstances, the law had to be modified and adapted, thus robbing it of its regularity and uniformity. On top of this, the medley of official circulars, formulary books, clarifications, edicts, and modifications emanating from the centre rendered the law even less certain and its application in individual circumstances unpredictable. Bewildered bureaucrats frequently referred up, so that even trivial matters ended up on Bach’s desk, never to be resolved.

But there was uncertainty at the top too. Franz Joseph was unaccountable, unconstrained by either institutions or a constitution. He was inept but convinced in his own superior wisdom. In an example that shocked the British ambassador, he insisted in early 1852 that a cavalry parade take place on the cobblestones before the Schönbrunn Palace in a deep frost, even though warned of the danger. The horses toppled, killing two cuirassiers. Franz Joseph’s handling of foreign policy was equally calamitous. He did not support Tsar Nicholas in the Crimean War (1853–1856), thus letting down the ally who had come to his rescue in 1849, but neither did he back the British and the French against Russia. Diplomatically isolated, he was now prey for Napoleon III of France, whose army swept through Lombardy in 1859, assigning the province to the kingdom of Piedmont in exchange for France taking Nice and Savoy. It did not help that halfway through the campaign Franz Joseph appointed himself commander. His generalship led directly to the bloodbath of the Battle of Solferino. Two years later, having overrun the Habsburg-ruled duchies of Parma, Modena, and Tuscany, the king of Piedmont was proclaimed king of Italy.

Italian Air Force Special Units; Italy, 1942

(1) Tenente, Air Force Assault Engineer Battalion (ADRA)

This is the khaki cotton version of the typical collarless jacket of Italian special forces, otherwise cut like the ‘Sahariana’. Note the matching beret, wide paratrooper’s trousers and black jump-boots; an officer’s ‘Sam Browne’ belt with Beretta M34 holster; and the special forces dagger. In the Regia Aeronautica only special forces wore the beret; it bears the Air Force officer’s cap badge of a crown over a wreathed eagle in gold, on grey-blue backing, and the two stars of his rank. The lieutenant’s two rank stripes in gold on grey-blue, the upper one with a diamond-shaped ‘curl’, are worn on the cuff, but the other insignia are all of Army type. Blue paratroop lapel patches bear the guastatori symbol of a winged sword set on a flaming petard, above the national silver star. On his left breast he wears the Air Force’s 1942 gold metal parachutist’s ‘wings’. On the left sleeve is the badge then worn by all qualified paratroopers, above the wreathed sword badge of a qualified Ardito assault trooper. The ribbons are those of the Air Force Silver Medal, War Merit Cross, and 2 Years’ War Service Badge.

(1a) Metal breast badge of the Arditi Distruttori Regia Aeronautica (ADRA).

(2) Paracadutista, 1st Air Force Parachute Battalion

Over blue-grey Regia Aeronautica uniform he wears the standard Army paratroop helmet with camouflaged cover, a camouflaged jump-smock, a narrower version of the ‘Samurai’ ammo vest (so as not to interfere with the parachute harness), knee pads and jump-boots. His Beretta M38A SMG is carried in a canvas case secured to his waist by a 10m (c.30ft) rope, and at the ankle by a sleeve. When his parachute opens he will lift the muzzle out of the ankle sleeve and lower the case to dangle below him until he lands. (To hit the ground with it still stowed as illustrated would obviously result in broken bones.)

(3) Primo aviere, ‘Loreto’ Battalion

This corporal carrying a Breda 30 ‘automatic rifle’ (light machine gun), photographed while lined up for inspection, wears surprisingly inadequate equipment: a greenish-painted Army belt with a single rifle cartridge pouch and a bayonet, but neither the neck support sling, nor the cleaning-kit pouch and pistol prescribed for an LMG crew ‘No.1’. The battalion received these Czech steel helmets, painted blue-grey with a black Air Force stencil. Otherwise he wears standard Air Force blue-grey service uniform, with bright blue collar patches. On the left sleeve above his red rank chevrons is this battalion’s yellow sword-and-wings badge.

The birth of the Air Force special forces was also prompted by the plan to assault Malta, although in their case only very late in the day. This was due to the belated decision to include in the plan the rapid seizure and preparation of Hal Far airfield in order to bring in air-landing troops of the `La Spezia’ Division.

The 1° Reparto Paracadutisti della Regia Aeronautica (1st Air Force Paratroop Unit), tasked with capturing Hal Far, was formed only on 12 May 1942 at Tarquinia, under command of LtCol Edvino Dalmas. Entirely composed of volunteers, it had an HQ (5 officers, 4 NCOs, 20 rankers), and ten squads each with an officer, 2 NCOs and 25 rankers. Most were armed with the standard 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano M91 carbine, the officers and NCOs with the 9mm Beretta M38A submachine gun, and their intensive training included the use of explosives and sabotage techniques. Part of the unit was made up of technical specialists tasked with returning the airfield facilities to serviceable condition as soon as possible.

Since this latter was a key part of the overall plan, on 10 June 1942 another unit was formed, at Cameri airfield near Novara, specifically tasked with this role. This Battaglione `Loreto’ was intended both to take part in the restoration of facilities at Hal Far and to garrison and defend it. Its first two companies were to be deployed in defence. The 1st Co had 6 officers, 17 NCOs and 172 airmen, being composed of one machine-gun platoon armed with 20mm AA cannon, and three light machine-gun platoons. The 2nd Co had 5 officers, 12 NCOs and 200 airmen. Officers and NCOs were equipped with SMGs, most others with the M91 carbine. The 3rd Co, responsible for the technical services, comprised 8 officers, 9 NCOs and 199 airmen, onequarter of them technicians. The 4th Co, responsible for logistics and administration, had 8 officers, 14 NCOs and 185 airmen, again one-quarter of them technicians.

1st Air Force Assault Regiment `Amedeo d’Aosta’

After the decision to cancel the invasion of Malta the Air Force paratroop unit moved to Arezzo, Tuscany, in late summer 1942. Most of the personnel were granted leave, and the unit was almost forgotten until November, when the Allied Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria concentrated the minds of the high command. Both the 1st Paratroop Unit and the `Loreto’ Bn were sent at first to Sicily; and there, on 16 November at Marsala, these units were merged to form the 1° Reggimento d’Assalto della Regia Aeronautica `Amedeo d’Aosta’ (1st Air Force Assault Regiment `Amedeo d’Aosta’ – named after the Air Force general who had been Viceroy of Ethiopia). The regiment had its own HQ and the newly redesignated 1st Paratroop Bn, and was also originally intended to include the Battaglione Arditi Distruttori della Regia Aeronautica (ADRA). This Air Force Assault Engineer Bn, which was still forming, would eventually be an independent unit. On that same day the Paratroop Bn, only 241 strong, landed in Tunisia. After a short pause at Bizerta, where three of its ten squads were left, it was deployed westwards to face the advancing US and British forces. On the evening of 20 November the understrength battalion, along with the German Paratroop Engineer Bn `Witzig’, was deployed on the Djebel Abjod close to the Algerian border. The following day both German and Italian paratroopers attacked the advancing British forces, taking them by surprise, but soon faced strong counterattacks. Out of 81 men the Italians lost 4 killed, 7 wounded and abandoned, and 44 missing; LtCol Dalmas was also wounded, but was evacuated to Italy. Reinforced by the three squads from Bizerta on 23 November, the paratroopers held their positions until the 25th when, under heavy artillery fire, both Germans and Italians withdrew some 50km (31 miles) eastwards. What was left of the Air Force Paratroop Bn was then deployed in rear areas, to defend the airfields of Tunis, Gabes and Sfax against Allied raids.

The first two companies of the `Loreto’ Bn were shipped from Sicily to Tunis aboard destroyers on 15 January 1943; the 3rd and 4th Cos were left in Sicily to repair airfields (in May they would be moved to Sardinia to carry out the same duties). At the same time the new commanding officer of the 1st Air Force Assault Regt arrived in Tunisia; he found that the unit had been reduced to 6 of the original 11 officers, 12 NCOs out of 28, and 174 airmen out of 274. He requested replacements for men, weapons and equipment before the unit could again be employed as infantry (the paratroopers had even been sent to Tunisia without steel helmets).

His request was only answered when the situation worsened still further; in April 1943 elements of both the Paratroop and `Loreto’ battalions were regrouped and reinforced using spare Air Force personnel, to be deployed at Enfidaville under the Italian First Army. At this time the regiment had an HQ company; the Paratroop Bn with three companies (the first two mainly paratroopers, the MG Co made up with new Air Force personnel); and the `Loreto’ Bn with four companies (again, the first two from the original unit, the others from new personnel) – armed with a few more SMGs, but still with only (on paper) 18 MGs and 42 LMGs. Attached to the `Pistoia’ Inf Div, the cobbled-together regiment fought until the end, at Wadi Akarit and Enfidaville, until it surrendered in May near Mateur. On 2 July 1943 the regiment was practically disbanded, leaving cadres only. On the 23rd it was re-formed on paper, to a reduced strength and with undetermined tasks, though theoretically to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Allied forces landing in Sicily.

`ADRA’ Battalion

The Battaglione Arditi Distruttori della Regia Aeronautica (ADRA), Air Force Assault Engineer Bn, had officially been formed as part of the 1st Air Force Assault Regt on 10 December 1942, but its composition was only defined on 25 January 1943. It was to have an HQ and three companies, each with three platoons, each having 2 officers, 3 NCOs and 24 rank-and-file. These formed squads each with an NCO and 8 rankers.

Their objectives were broadly defined as enemy airfield facilities, fuel and ammunition depots. The approach to the targets might be by either parachute, land or sea. Courses had begun at Tarquinia in September 1942, but the belated recruitment of volunteers, the time needed to train them, and delays in the delivery of weapons and equipment, meant that the first 60 Arditi were not available until April 1943, when the bulk of the 1st Air Force Assault Regt was already in Tunisia. As a consequence, on 10 April 1943 the `ADRA’ Bn was detached and made independent.

Its baptism of fire came in June 1943, when it took part in a mass sabotage operation against Allied airfields in North Africa. Ten `ADRA’ patrols, along with parties from the Army’s X Arditi, were flown from bases in Italy, France and Greece, only to land in most cases far from their targets. As a consequence of faulty intelligence many of these had not been studied properly, or were badly chosen (some were no longer even in use). Most of the patrols were taken prisoner hours, or at best days, after landing, and without reaching their targets. The exception was one patrol dropped in Cyrenaica which, chased by British forces and down to just two men, managed on the night of 17/18 June to penetrate Benina airfield and destroy or damage (amongst others) two USAAF B-24 Liberator bombers and two RAF Wellington bombers. The two Arditi eventually surrendered.

La Spingarda

The drawings depict minors two shells with gunpowder, top «wants the bag inside the bullet“; a queue of bombs “that does not come back to dirieto to take in galley” (the galley was the typical warship used in the Mediterranean from the ninth to the eighteenth century.); Other casing with two types of powder a – b, “mode of foil – to – fine powder, – b – fluffy powder and bombards‘; especially a dart with feathers for spingarda “these pens want to jump fuora spring, when and dart out of spingarda»

Leonardo in another note says it can build a spingarda composed of various sections for better transport and reassemble where necessary, “once, Because of this make a bomb of 40 pieces, and remains as one piece. Female–Male–Male–Femena »

The name Spingarde was used to indicate a kind of war machine that was used to throw stones. The development of gunpowder changed the way in which the Spingarde was fired but the name stuck for a while.

The Leonardo design for the Spingarde cannon typically brings together many existing features into one device – firstly a cannon mounted on a carriage with wheels for mobility. He then brings to it the ability to be aimed whilst the frame is staked to the ground to control the recoil. It does this by having a secondary carriage  gimbal mounted on the fixed frame so that the cannon can be adjusted in yaw (side to side) and Pitch (up and down).

It has breech-loading of the powder and cannon ball, a feature used to increase the rate of fire in battle as these breech blocks can be pre-loaded. Cannon of this type was generally known as Breech-loading swivel guns.The open space at the back end of the barrel was where the breech block would be fitted, and held in position by a wedge. Leonardo has brought some more precision to this design by introducing a screw connection between the barrel and the breech, a similar system used in modern weapons.

Finally, it has protection for the artilleryman loading and operating the cannon, a roof has been added and fixed to the barrel at the front and the pitch mount at the rear.

All of the features were in existence around Leonardo’s time but he has developed some more detail into these features. 

Italian First Offensives 1915 Part I

Yellowed prints of the 1866 border show simple guardhouses beside stone bridges. Farmers pose, squinting, by the barrier poles alongside their carts and livestock, while children play at the roadside under listless flags. Few traces of that frontier can be seen today. On the outskirts of Cormons, a guardhouse has been adapted into a loggia for a private home, sheltering an expensive car. Deep in its stony bed, the River Judrio trickles past the end of the garden. Traffic whines along the SS356 highway, a hundred metres away, beyond a monument marking where the first shots were fired in Italy’s last war of independence. The inscription says that on the night of 23/24 May, Italian customs officers opened fire to stop Austrian reservists from burning the wooden bridge over the Judrio. A few hours later, the first Italian casualty was brought back across the bridge on a farmer’s cart.

The 23rd was a Sunday, and parish priests along the border warned their congregations that war was coming. Hostilities officially com menced at midnight. Assuming supreme command, the King over came his diffidence and spoke to the people – something he rarely did. The solemn hour of national claims had struck, he cried, standing on the balcony of the Quirinale palace and waving a flag. The enemy were battle-hardened and worthy; favoured by the terrain and by careful preparations, they would fight tenaciously, ‘but your indomitable ardour will certainly overcome them’. It was an oddly subdued performance. Even so, according to press reports, the crowd was delirious. With this ordeal behind him, the King hurried to the front; he did not want to miss a moment of his army’s dash to glory.

The army was not, however, dashing anywhere. Full mobilisation began on 22 May and was scheduled to take 23 days. It took twice as long; the army was not fully deployed until mid-July. The general staff had prepared for war as if it would occur in peacetime conditions. Little allowance was made for systemic stress and breakdown, all the concomitants that Clausewitz called ‘friction’.

When the fighting began, Cadorna had some 400,000 men in the plains of Veneto and Friuli. Yet, these hastily concentrated forces included only two of the army’s 17 regular corps – fewer than 80,000 rifles. On the lower Isonzo, the Third Army was to rush to the river, establish bridgeheads and capture Monfalcone. Gorizia was to be isolated by taking the hills that flanked the city. On the middle and upper Isonzo, the Second Army’s priority was to take the Caporetto basin and then the Krn–Mrzli ridge. The Fourth Army was supposed to pinch the neck of the Trentino salient by occupying a series of towns in the north: first Cortina, deep in the Dolomite mountains, then Toblach (Dobbiaco) and Bruneck (Brunico). The First Army was deployed defensively around the western side of the salient.

Cadorna should have had the benefit of co-ordinated operations by Russia and Serbia, but the Serbs were in no condition to attack and anyway resented Italian ambitions in the Balkans, while the Russians were paralysed after heavy losses in May and early June. The Italians were on their own, and the long build-up deprived them of surprise. Also, Austrian agents in the border areas had been feeding them disinformation, so they were expecting ambushes and sabotage on the roads to the east.

There was another reason for the Third Army’s snail’s pace. As it rolled into action, Cadorna replaced its commander, General Zuccari, because he had delayed his arrival at the front or possibly to settle a score. The timing was astonishing; Zuccari’s successor, the Duke of Aosta, took up his command on 27 May, exactly when the Third Army should have been smashing the enemy lines. The Italians crept to the Isonzo instead of racing there. The cavalry were ordered to take the bridges above Monfalcone on the morning of the 24th. But their commander, expecting tough resistance, wanted to keep contact with the supporting infantry, so the Austrians had time to blow the bridges that afternoon. Cadorna blamed the men’s lack of ‘offensive spirit’, rather than poor preparation, sheer inexperience, or the enemy’s skill at spreading false reports.

The Habsburg secret services scored real successes in April and early May 1915. Italian intelligence reported that the enemy had eight or ten divisions on the Italian border – around 100,000 infantry. In fact, the Isonzo frontier was guarded in mid-May by only two divisions – some 25,000 rifles, supported by around 100 artillery pieces. Intelligence from the Alpine regions was no better. Crucially, Cadorna was unaware that in the Tyrol and the Dolomites the Austrians had withdrawn to a defensive line some way behind the state border, leaving large tracts of territory near Lake Garda and north of Asiago practically undefended.

The Habsburg commander in the Tyrol reported on 20 May:

We are on the eve of an enemy invasion. We have erected a weak line of combat on the border, but we have only 21 reserve battalions and seven and a half batteries along a front of some 400 kilometres. All our proper troops are on the Eastern Front [meaning Galicia]. Only the Trent zone is a bit better fortified and sufficiently garrisoned … I don’t know what will happen if the Italians attack vigorously, everywhere.

The reservists were mostly labourers who had been building the defences and were then put in uniform, given a rifle and basic training.

There was no vigorous attack. West of the Isonzo, only the Fourth Army under General Nava and the Carnia Corps were deployed to attack, targeting the Puster valley and Villach. With just five divisions, Nava’s force was too dispersed to make much impact. They had only one heavy battery and no other means of breaching wire: no gelignite tubes or even wire-cutters. Small wonder that Nava’s men advanced so slowly in May and June. An Austrian officer posted in the Dolomites wrote on 23 May that, if the Italians knew their business, they would march overnight and reach the Puster valley inside Austria by morning; nothing could have stopped them. But they did not know their business, and the window closed. The Fourth Army occupied Cortina five days after the Austrians evacuated it, then delayed the offensive proper until 3 June, for no clear reason. This gave the Austrians ample time to strengthen their line. Lieutenant General Krafft von Dellmensingen, leading the German Alpine Corps on this sector, recalled that the Italians’ initial superiority was so great that they could have broken through at will. ‘We expected them to do just that, and were more and more astonished when they let two weeks and more pass without moving.’ The Italians never got near the Puster valley.

In Carnia, the mountainous hinge of the entire front, the Italian force was, again, too small for its ambitious tasks of breaking through at Tarvis. No artillery was available until 12 June and anyway there were no tracks or roads to bring the batteries close to enemy lines, so it was impossible to attack the well-protected approaches to the passes into Austrian Carinthia.

West of Carnia and the Dolomites, General Brusati, commanding the First Army, was straining at the leash. Although he had only five divisions for a sector of 130 kilometres around Trentino, he was dismayed by Cadorna’s decision not to let him attack.2 So he attacked anyway, achieving no success because he chose the only strongly fortified zone in his sector: the high ground between Trent and the coastal plain. His offensive unfurled as if in slow motion.

With Habsburg troops pouring in from Serbia, the balance was changing every day. By 24 May, the Austrians had 50,000–70,000 men on the Italian front. A further 40 battalions (40,000 men) arrived by the end of the month. By mid-June, there may have been 200,000 Habsburg troops facing the Italians. Nonetheless, Italy had a broad advantage of at least 4:1 in fighting strength for the first month of the war. This disparity was not admitted at the time, or under Fascism. Mussolini would claim that the Italians had faced 221 enemy battalions. The Austrians credited the Italians with 48 divisions (44 infantry, 4 cavalry), instead of 35. Each side overestimated the other’s initial strength, but the overestimation had dire consequences for one side only.

Local people had helped the Austrians to erect barriers across the border roads, using trees, glass, barbed wire, and even farm implements. They also warned the advancing Italians about mines, traps and electrified wire barriers that did not exist. Nosing tentatively forward, skirmishing with Austrian patrols but meeting no fierce resistance, the Italians only reached the Isonzo on the 26th. The brunt of Cadorna’s attack was planned to take place across the river, between Sagrado and Monfalcone, a distance of 12 kilometres, east of the lower Isonzo. The bridges were all blown. Further days were wasted in exploring the riverbanks. Heavy rain had swollen the Isonzo and its tributaries. What with accurate enemy fire and shortages of bridging equipment, it proved impossible to cross the river until the night of 4/5 June. Once they reached the eastern side, the Italians found that the enemy had flooded the low-lying area between the river and the Carso by closing the sluices on a raised canal. The Italians blew up the sluice gates, but too late to save the troops from being bogged down. This bought the Austrians more time to prepare their defences on the Carso ridge.

The rapture and creeping disillusion of early June were chronicled by Giani Stuparich, a volunteer from Trieste. Stuparich enlisted in the 1st Regiment of Sardinian Grenadiers at the end of May and entrained for the front at once. He was a fastidious man and the company in the crowded carriage (‘two Florentines … a Roman … a Sicilian … one from Livorno’) soon became tiresome. A sergeant in the reserves made ‘loudly incomprehensible speeches about humanity, barbarism, sacrifice, duty and many other muddled concepts’. Looking for distraction from the chatter, Stuparich noticed a silent figure in the corner of the carriage. ‘He is not listening or talking, he is the only one rapt in a preoccupation that he cannot account for, but it fevers his expression and stiffens his limbs, paralysing his soul in an intense stupor.’ His mouth hung open, his eyes were fixed and shining. He was a peasant in uniform, perhaps leaving home for the first time in his life, probably fluent only in dialect. The nameless man was still far from the front, but even now he could not grasp what was happening. Wrenched from his family and routine for reasons neither explained nor understood, he was in shock. While the writer saw this and was moved, too much separated them for a friendly word to be uttered.

At Mestre station, outside Venice, the men see wounded soldiers waiting for transport away from the front. ‘There are thousands of them!’ says one of the Tuscans in a trembling voice. (Thanks to censorship, he would have had no idea of the initial casualties.) Smells of blood and iodine seep into the carriage. Like the peasant in the corner, the wounded say nothing. The train moves on towards the front. Marching to the border, the men are nervous, starting at shadows by the roadside. Beyond Cervignano, there are tree trunks across the road. Bersaglieri speed past them on bikes, raising trails of dust. A public fountain slakes their thirst. They sleep on their capes under the stars, and awaken spangled with dew. Ordered to carry heavy cauldrons, Stuparich – a bespectacled, intense, 25-year-old intellectual – notes euphorically that his body alone could not have borne the weight; ‘my strength is sheer willpower’.

They cross the Isonzo on 5 June, ‘a tremendous, foaming azure current cut by pontoons’. His rucksack no longer weighs him down. Near the front, smells of putrefaction emanate from the roadside bushes, but the men are too hopeful to be gloomy. Marching towards Monfalcone on 8 June, they talk excitedly about reaching Trieste within a fortnight. Giani dreams of being one of the first to enter the main square, covered in dust. Next day, he reaches the Carso. The unit is sheltering from Austrian fire in a dyke. They clamber out, and come face to face with a rocky, barren hillside. ‘A chilly gust of wind hits me, a bullet whistles over my head, then another, then more buzz past my ears with a softer, keening sound.’

The Carso figures in this story as a landscape, a battlefield, practically a character in its own right. It is a triangle of highland with vertices near the hill of San Michele in the north, Trieste in the south, and somewhere around the town of Vipava – deep inside Slovenia – in the east. To the south and east, it merges into the limestone ranges that reach into Slovenia and Croatia, and ultimately stretch all the way along the eastern Adriatic coast to Montenegro. In the north, it is bounded by the valley of the River Vipacco. It is from the west, however, that the Carso shows its most impressive aspect, at first like a bar of cloud on the horizon, then surging from the ground.

There is a legend about the origins of the Carso. God sent an archangel to take away the stones that stopped people from growing crops. The devil saw the angel flying high over a land with beautiful woods and streams and meadows, carrying a huge sack. Hoping for treasure, the devil approached the archangel from behind and slashed his sack with a knife. Out poured the stones, covering the beautiful country below. God was sanguine: ‘No harm is done. The people in that country sheltered the devil instead of praising my name. Let this be a lesson to them. Let this be the kingdom of stone, where men labour to survive. Then they will learn not to trust the devil.’ The local people chased the devil away, but too late. The Carso remained a wasteland, as God had ordained.

The Carso only reaches 500 metres in height, like the chalk downs in southern England, but it feels like a world apart. The surface is uneven, pitted with sinkholes where water has drained into the stone. If you stumble, it is easy to break an ankle or cut yourself to the bone. Someone likened the Carso to an immense petrified sponge. It is a hydrologist’s laboratory, a potholer’s playground; fissures in the surface open into grottoes and caverns that lead deep underground. The largest holes, called dolinas, are conical, steep-sided depressions up to 200 or 300 metres across and 50 metres deep. Formed by water erosion and often plugged with fertile red soil, they were oases of cultivation on the arid plateau, where otherwise only goats could forage.

The Carso was almost trackless, and thinly populated – by Slovenes, not Italians, living in hamlets of limestone blocks, roofed with lichened stone. Habsburg forestation projects had created woodland around the fringes, but the plateau proper was almost treeless, for the natural flora was sub-alpine heathland, with thyme, cyclamen, narcissi, and juniper bushes. The fauna, too, was distinctive: boar, deer, lynx, jackals and horned vipers were all found. The climate is harsh. In winter, the Carso is swept by winds, including a cold, dry north-easterly called the bora that can gust at 100 knots. Rain turns the red clay to gluey mud. Summer turns the Carso into a desert; clouds form over the sea and pass overhead without releasing a drop of rain.

Made of rock that reflects the heat, waterless when not flooded, hard to walk over, let alone run, the Carso might have been designed as the last place on earth for trench warfare. Shellbursts were like volcanoes erupting. When heavy shells hit limestone, the fragments of steel casing and stone could maim soldiers a kilometre away. Trenching was extremely difficult without drills, under fire. Mattocks and picks were no use when solid rock lay on or just below the surface, so both sides built low walls of loose stones, knee-high and easily demolished by incoming shells. Disgust for these dry-stone defences is vividly expressed in war memoirs. The novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda, who fought on the Carso, found a memorably painful image when he wrote of the contending generals who ‘scraped their massacred battalions over those hills like matchsticks’.

The day when Giani Stuparich’s unit reached the Carso, 9 June, the Sardinian Grenadiers were involved in capturing Monfalcone. With 10,000 people, Monfalcone was the biggest town between Gorizia and Trieste, and it was booming, thanks to shipbuilding and chemical industries. Its capture gave the Italians their first triumph.

While infantry of the Messina Brigade entered the town directly, the Grenadiers circled around the back. If you drive through Monfalcone today, you glimpse a white monument on a low hilltop behind the main square. This is the Rocca, literally ‘the Rock’, a miniature fortress with a squat limestone tower, 10 metres square, hooped by walls four or five metres high. Fortifications stood here for centuries before the Venetians built this tower some 500 years ago. (The lion of St Mark, its forepaw resting on the Gospel, is still visible on the façade.) It is a superb vantage-point, looking forward over the plains of Friuli and the Gulf of Trieste, and rearward to the Carso. A prehistoric trade route from the Adriatic to the Black Sea passed by this place.

Italian First Offensives 1915 Part II

Looking from the western rim of the Isonzo valley, across to Mount Mrzli. The Italians clawed their way up this 1,200-metre face, but could not take the summit. Colonel De Rossi’s view in May 1915 was from a lower elevation.

The fight for the Rocca on 9 June was fierce but short. The Austrians pulled back across a valley to a hill called Cosich. At 112 metres, Cosich stands only 30 metres higher than the Rocca, but it was naturally apt for defensive operations. A smug Viennese journalist dubbed it the ‘Hotel Cosich’. The Austrians were not budged from it until August 1916.

Stuparich found Monfalcone deserted, ‘almost spectral’. The shop¬ fronts were shuttered. He did not know it, but the Austrians had ordered a complete evacuation on 24 May, and only 3,000 determined Italians stayed behind, sheltering in cellars from the shelling. Then a shutter went up, a head peered out. Rumours spread that a sweet shop had opened, but what the soldiers wanted was liquor. They ransacked the houses for ‘souvenirs’, stealing pictures, furniture, cutlery, even clothes. For days afterwards, troops wandered around kitted in women’s blouses, until these too were infested with lice.

That evening, Giani walks up to the Rocca. The air is fragrant with pine resin. At dawn the next day, the Austrian artillery on Cosich is silhouetted by the slanting light. The Grenadiers feel unaccountably sad; even the officers seem discouraged. A rumour deepens their gloom: other platoons in the battalion may have taken heavy casualties from Italian artillery. This is soon confirmed; a hundred men have been killed by friendly fire. (The battery commanders did not learn to co-ordinate their fire with infantry advances until the following summer.) This raises the losses around Monfalcone to nearly 300. Giani reports that the terrible accident brings the advance to a halt. He feels the sinews snapping in his breast. He wants to weep but cannot, and has no appetite for supper. Only yesterday Trieste seemed so close, as if they could reach it in one bound. Now it seems so far away.

A few days later, the pinewoods around the Rocca catch fire from the Austrian guns. After the blaze, the ground is carpeted with ash that swirls up and coats the soldiers’ faces. Then the rain starts again, and the ground is churned to soaking mud. By mid-June, Monfalcone is in ruins.

On the day the Italians took Monfalcone, the Second Army made its first attack on the little hill of Podgora, to the west of Gorizia. The troops had crossed the river below San Michele with relative ease, but made no headway on Podgora. There was an equally futile attempt on Mount Sabotino, north of Gorizia. By 11 June, Cadorna realised what he was up against. Gorizia was, he admitted, a proper trenched camp buttressed by mighty hills: Sabotino and Podgora west of the Isonzo, Monte Santo and San Gabriele to the east, and then San Michele to the south. These hills were the town’s outlying ramparts, rising abruptly some 600 metres from the valley.

Also on 9 June, the Italians clashed for the first time with the Austrians on the lower Isonzo. It happened at Sagrado, a little town south-west of Gorizia. Before dawn, a battalion of the Pisa Brigade crossed a pontoon that had been thrown across the river where a sandy islet in midstream made the work easier. (The islet is still visible today.) The artillery hammered the enemy forward positions beyond the river. The major blew his whistle, the Italians – unaware how vulnerable they now were – jumped up to yell ‘Savoy!’, the name of the royal family, and ran forward from their improvised bridgehead. Suddenly the Austrian positions erupted with devastating fire. The pontoon was destroyed and the battalion pinned down without supplies or support. The Italians fell back to the river, and used bayonets when their ammunition ran out. As the Austrians closed in, they threw some newfangled weapons that the Italians had never seen – hand-grenades. The Italians waded back to the little island – the water was only a metre and a half deep – and burrowed into the sand as best they could. At nightfall, the handful of survivors floundered back to the western shore, leaving behind some 500 dead.

It was an astonishing blunder. Why was the operation launched with no secure bridgehead on the far side of the river? Why were the obvious risks not anticipated and planned for? These questions were not asked, even though the first massacre on the Isonzo had happened a week before, some 80 kilometres away, on the middle reach of the river, between the towns of Tolmein (now Tolmin) and Karfreit, better known as Caporetto. The Italians had advanced more rapidly on this sector. As elsewhere, they expected stiff resistance but met with almost none. On one of the hilltops above Caporetto, they found nothing but a defiant message scrawled in faulty Italian and stuffed into a bottle. The message ended, ‘Thus misfortune will come to our powerful enemies the Italians. Long live Austria! Long live the Emperor!’

By the morning of the 24th the Second Army controlled the western ridges above the valley. What did they see? Except for the weaving line of the Isonzo, the area between Flitsch (now Bovec) in the north and Gorizia in the south – where the river issues onto the plain – was a vast jumble, with no paths on the tops and very little surface water. Picture hills like the highest ranges in Wales or Scotland – around Snowdon, the Ben Nevis massif or the Cuillins of Skye, but with limestone instead of slate, granite or gabbro. The tops are often jagged, though sometimes they undulate like the Pennines. The hills rise a thousand metres and more from narrow valleys. Sheer cliffs drop to remote corries. The hills are linked by ridges that rise and fall, merge and separate like giant waves in a choppy sea. Only the Isonzo valley widens into basins where hamlets or little towns huddle the river, and farmers use every scrap of soil for crops or grazing. A rough road runs beside the river. Tracks lead up to a few higher hamlets with summer pastures. Scrubby undergrowth covers the lower slopes. For the most part, the landscape is a stony wilderness.

The Italians entered the hamlet of Livek, above Caporetto, a few hours after it had been abandoned by the Habsburg military police, who left their shiny new barracks in such a rush that the cooking pots were full of sauerkraut. As in the other ‘liberated’ villages north of Gorizia, the local people were Slovenes. The only one who spoke Italian was a woman called Katerina Medves. When she offered coffee to an ailing infantryman, he would not touch it before she drank some herself.

By the end of the day, several villages had been occupied on the eastern bank of the river, at the foot of the mountains. By the 24th, only a few Austrian reservists were left in Caporetto, which was taken the next morning. (A Slovene child, seeing the Bersaglieri approaching by bicycle and fascinated by the plumes on their hats, cried out ‘Daddy, daddy, look at all the ladies coming here on bikes!’) The Italians made their way carefully to the old stone bridge over the Isonzo, which presses through a canyon a few metres wide. Inevitably, the bridge had been blown. Scanning the hillside across the river, they saw several Austrians gazing at them from the undergrowth. Why didn’t they open fire? Then they realised these enemies were straw dummies in uniform. The first prisoners of war were taken the following morning.

At this point, inexplicably, the regiments in the Isonzo valley were ordered to sit tight by the corps commander, General di Robilant, based more than 20 kilometres away in Cividale. Up in Livek, the 12th Bersaglieri milled around for four days, gazing into the valley below and at the Mrzli ridge that rose 1,000 metres on the far side of the river. When their commander, Colonel De Rossi, asked Katerina Medves about nearby Austrian positions, she shrugged: there were none. Scanning the motionless landscape with binoculars, he could not be sure she was lying.

De Rossi was baffled by the orders from Cividale, and with reason. The prime objective in this sector was to capture the peaks of Krn and Mrzli and the lofty connecting ridges, in order to outflank the town of Tolmein. If the Italians took Tolmein, they would control the crucial railhead at Santa Lucia; then they could throttle the Habsburg defences all the way from Gorizia to Tarvis. In frustration, De Rossi ordered his sappers to throw a footbridge over the Isonzo on the 27th. When he sent his men across the bridge to prepare positions under Mrzli, on the 30th, he was ordered to pull back to Livek. Other units, he was told, were active on Mrzli.

General di Robilant had unaccountably ordered a reserve division in Cividale to lead the attack on Mrzli ridge. The 26 battalions of Alpini4 and Bersaglieri stood by and watched as the reservists crept up the flanks of the Krn and Mrzli massifs. The Italians did not realise that Mrzli was unoccupied. Sitting in Tolmein and desperately short of men, the Austrians had expected the Italians to swarm over the valley and onto Mrzli. When they realised this was not happening, they sent units of a mountain brigade onto the ridge. Later that day, the 28th, the Italians finally tried to take Mount Mrzli, and found themselves fighting one of the strongest units in the Habsburg army: the 4th Bosnian Regiment. They could get no further than a ridge at 1,186 metres on the north-west shoulder of the mountain, still 200 metres below the summit. Ferocious fire made it impossible to secure this ridge, and they fell back.

De Rossi’s men were let off the leash on 1 June. They climbed to the ridge below the summit and charged up the steep slope, led by officers brandishing sabres. Machine guns cut swathes through their ranks, but they got within 50 metres of the enemy. That night was mild and clear, and De Rossi crawled to the forward Italian position. The zinc coating on the barbed wire was silvery in the moonlight, which shone on the Austrian line, a rough wall of stones below the summit. The Italians captured this line in a dawn attack. Instead of finding themselves as masters of the hilltop, however, they were stuck. The final slope up to the summit was packed with barbed wire. Pinned down by Austrian fire, De Rossi decided to explore possible routes down to the river on his left, northwards. But another officer jumped up and, in what De Rossi called a fit of madness, ordered his men to attack. This man, Lieutenant Colonel Negrotto, was in the grip of nationalist fever; his letters home described the war as pitting ‘luminous Latin civilisation’ against ‘the barbarous but disciplined German culture’.

Hit in the spine by machine-gun fire as he tried to stop this suicidal attack, De Rossi was paralysed for life. Further north, where Mrzli converges with the Krn massif in a jumble of knife-like ridges and gullies, the Italians hurled themselves towards the summits with no greater success. As well as using their firearms, the Austrians piled boulders into pyramids and rolled them down the mountainside. By 4 June, the Italians had lost more than 2,500 men on this sector, including nearly a hundred officers. Cadorna’s judgement on the assaults on Mrzli was succinct: ‘heroic but senseless’. The Austrians were so dismayed by the loss of the little ridge at 1,186 metres that officers of the defending battalion were court-martialled. Nevertheless, Austria had got the better of this first engagement on the upper Isonzo.

The Italians had done better further north. Krn itself, which soars like a shark’s fin 2,000 metres above Caporetto, was taken in a daring pre-dawn attack by the 3rd Regiment of Alpini on 16 June, with their boots swaddled in sacks of straw to reduce noise. It was a glorious success, the first of the war, presaging others that never materialised. One of the three casualties provided Italy’s propagandists with a cult hero. Alberto Picco was a young officer from Tuscany, a handsome boy, the centre-forward and first captain of his home town’s team, La Spezia, where the soccer stadium still bears his name. He died in his captain’s arms.

Elsewhere the Italians were fatally diffident. They took the hamlet of Plava, halfway between Gorizia and Tolmein, at the end of May, but only managed to cross the river on 9 June. There were two objectives. One was Mount Kuk (611 metres), a couple of kilometres to the south. Looming in front of them was a smaller hill, which, like most of the nameless hills and peaks along the front, was known by its metric height above sea level: Hill 383.

Kuk was swathed with barbed wire, and the Italians were tricked by Austrian camouflage. The trees seemed to rain grenades, and death blazed from the undergrowth. The 37th Infantry Regiment lost half its men and most of its officers before being pulled back to the river. The survivors were ordered to join an attack on Hill 383, defended by a tough Dalmatian regiment, the 22nd Infantry, whose commander urged the men to defend their ‘Slavic soil’ against the ancestral foe. Decades later, a veteran recalled that the Austrians seemed to know exactly when the Italians would emerge from their positions on 16 June. Given the quality of Habsburg intelligence, they quite likely did possess this information. Even if they did not, the cycle of preparatory bombardment and frontal attack was pathetically predictable.

It was like the end of the world and you would have thought a volcano was erupting. Down below, the Isonzo was boiling. I was wondering how a humble infantryman could come out of this inferno alive. We were going up all the time, under an avalanche of fire; I was praying all the time. There were already big holes in our line …

Despite horrific losses – almost five hundred dead, nearly a thousand wounded – the Italians took the hill. The Austrians hid in dug-outs and tunnels along their second line while the Italians celebrated and then slept. Early next day the counter-attack drove the Italians halfway back to the river. Among the prisoners taken was a lieutenant, a deputy in the Italian parliament, who spoke freely about his army’s desperately bad medical service and worsening morale.

At the northern end of the Isonzo front was the little town of Flitsch, overlooking broad meadows a dozen kilometres upstream from a dogleg bend in the river. By early June, the Italians controlled this bend and much of the ridge that runs from here to the Krn massif. Yet, the sector commander did not try to take the town, even though Cadorna’s orders were to do just this as quickly as possible. For Flitsch occupied a strategic position. It is dominated by a hulking mountain called Rombon, reaching up almost 2,000 metres from the valley floor. Whichever side held Rombon would have a stranglehold on Flitsch and control the access to the northern passes. The Austrians needed to make Rombon unconquerable; the Italian pause gave them the chance to make it so.

During the first month of war, Italy lost 11,000–20,000 men. Austrian losses were around 5,000. Cadorna’s army was incapable of successful offensives against competently defended positions. He had failed to instil the ‘offensive spirit’ into his senior officers. Circular orders were no substitute for direct exhortation, in person. To close observers, he gave the impression of being only half engaged. What he did do was start a rolling purge of the officer corps that continued throughout his tenure; by October 1917, Cadorna had dismissed 217 generals, 255 colonels and 355 battalion commanders. This ungentlemanly harshness shocked the career officers, who became more frightened of being ‘torpedoed’ than of carrying out absurd orders or sacrificing their men’s lives pointlessly. Combined with Cadorna’s intolerance of anything that might smack of insubordination, the sackings discouraged ambitious officers from sharing their thoughts on the course and conduct of the war.

In fairness, his faith in the frontal infantry offensive was no more dogged than Joffre’s or Haig’s. But he was fighting in terrain that exposed the flaws in this doctrine with utter ruthlessness. The poor quality of organisation and equipment was already having an effect. There were disturbing cases in June of conscripts spitting at the national flag. Many soldiers were disappointed by the local civilians’ cool response to their liberators, so unlike the acclaim promised by the newspapers. Instead they were met, for the most part, with shuttered windows and ‘hard Friulan faces’. Some of the soldiers began to wonder if their cause was just, after all. Their heroic idea of war was fading, and, in questions of morale, the volunteers were bellwethers; doubts that assailed them were soon felt more widely.

The opening moves in any military endeavour are likely to be clumsy, especially when the attacking army lacks relevant campaign experience. Armies learn as they go, often more quickly than their own commanders. Translating fresh information into tactical thought is a challenge for any staff headquarters in war. Without free-flowing communication, lessons can hardly be learned. It was clear by early June that the channels in this army were badly clogged. Beyond this, the situation facing Cadorna in late May was worse than he had reasonably expected. Allied efforts to break through at Gallipoli had failed, so the Central Powers did not have to bolster the Turks. The Balkan neutrals, Romania and Bulgaria, had not come off the fence. Italy was alone.

By 10 June, Cadorna recognised that matters were not going to plan. He told his family that the advance faced great difficulties and a trench war was looming – a prospect he detested. Salandra was under pressure from warmongers whose euphoria was beginning to curdle. A note of asperity crept into his communications with Cadorna, who warned that the campaign would take a long time, and advised Salandra to inform the public of the real situation. This advice was not taken.

Meanwhile, as the clashes died down in the second week of June, Cadorna’s army set about hacking trenches and gun emplacements in the limestone, carving mule-tracks in zigzags up the mountains, and draping the valley with telephone wires and cable ways suspended from triangular wooden stanchions that can still be found in the forests that now cover the lower hillsides. Pontoons over the Isonzo were strengthened, swept away by late spring rains, rebuilt. Barracks were built in the rear. Cadorna took over the archbishop’s palace in Udine which he named the ‘Supreme Command’ instead of the traditional ‘General Headquarters’. The commanders of the Second and Third Armies set up their headquarters closer to their sectors. By 21 June, Cadorna was ready to start the war in earnest. With over a million men on the plains of Veneto and Friuli – the greatest force ever assembled in Italy – he issued orders for a general advance towards Trieste and Gorizia. The first battle of the Isonzo was about to begin, but the Austro-Hungarian army was better prepared than anyone had thought possible in May.

The Thirty Years’ War in Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy Triumphant

Italian troops landing in Trieste, 3 November 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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