Eden Walks Blog

About Rome

The Italian Adventure in World War II

Why Italy Switched Sides

The invasion of Sicily by the Allies in the summer of 1943 resulted in the fall of Mussolini, who still had the support of Germany. A new government was formed chaired by Marshal Pietro Badoglio that dissolved the fascist party and began negotiating with the allies. Meanwhile, the ousted duce proclaimed a parallel state in the north, the "Italian Social Republic."

But the situation was beyond his control. The signing of the armistice at the beginning of September precipitated the German invasion, the king and the government fled from Rome to put themselves under the protection of the allies and, finally, Badoglio declared war on Germany on October 13. That is how Italy changed sides, and Hitler began to complicate things in southern Europe.

If we try to define the reasons why fascist Italy intervened in the Second War, it can be summed up in prestige, cynicism, and opportunism.

At the beginning of the war, Mussolini declared himself as a non-belligerent ally of Germany. But all that changed to see how the French army was torn apart and the British being evacuated from Dunkirk during May 1940.

Mussolini, watched as Germany was only weeks away from defeating the Allies without the need for Italian help. Therefore, Hitler would have no reason to yield or distribute part of the spoils of war obtained in the victory against the allies. His conclusion was: Italy had to join the war before it ended actively, so it could obtain territories, gain greater influence, and loot wealth.

With that in mind, Mussolini had no qualms about telling his chief of staff, General Badoglio, the following: "I need a few hundred Italian dead to be in peace talks."

Italian soldiers were sent to war to die so that Mussolini could sit with Hitler and decide the fate of defeated France.

This strategy was no secret to anyone, so it was very common for many Italian soldiers to give up the first chance they had and get out of the war. Italian morals began on the floor when entering the war.

On the other hand, the fascist regime (and Mussolini) fervently professed the idea that Italian forces were top-notch, one of the best in the world. In their propaganda, the fascists glorified the spirit of Italian struggle, their Roman discipline, their willpower over humans, and their loyalty to the Duce.

Also, they said that their fascist men were superior to men born in democracy.

There was a point when fascist propaganda dared to say that the Italian army alone could defeat the British, Americans, and Soviets.

It is important to note that the fascist regime made huge investments in its armed forces during the 20s and 30s. In war material, Italy had by 1940 twice as many planes, tanks, armored vehicles, and ships as France.

Also, his troops were tanned for participating in the Spanish civil war and the conquest of Ethiopia.

But when the Italian participation began, that image of superiority collapsed due to all the structural failures of the Italian army. I already mentioned the low morale of the soldiers. Another factor was the incompetence of the generals that many had their positions for loyalty to the party and not for their abilities.

And to add more ingredients to the coming disaster, many decisions taken by the military were revoked by Mussolini for political reasons, in the same way, many actions of the Italian army were made for non-military political issues.

How the United States Helped Italy to Fight Germany

On January 22, 1944, a combined force of Anglo-American troops, led by Major General John P. Lucas, made an amphibious landing on the coast of Anzio. Operation Shingle was assembled in Naples and landed near Anzio and Nettuno at 02:00 with the landing of a Rangers Brigade.

The purpose of the operation was to attack together with the British 1st Division, the German communications center in the Albanian Mountains, and the rearguard of the Gustav Line with the 3rd US Division.

The Germans were taken completely by surprise, and the invading force established a bridgehead without much opposition. Once Marshal Kesselring learned of the amphibious landing, he ordered that the 29th Panzergrenadier Division moved to the Anzio area, while the 94th Division took the positions of the 29th Division.

The combined allied forces in Anzio were not clear about which of the two objectives was a priority, and this caused them confused when making decisions. A week later, the beachhead had only extended 16 kilometers inland.

After receiving reinforcements from the Cassino, the German Army from northern Italy sector went to Anzio to control the situation.

Battle of Cassino

On January 24, the attack begins in the Cassino sector, precisely when German forces are taken out of the sector to be sent urgently to reinforce Anzio. In Cassino, the 34th US Division breaks the German lines north of the city and begins to climb Montecassino.

Further north, they capture Caira, Monte Castellone, and Cerro Sant'Angelo. The 3rd Algerian Division drills the German lines occupying Cerro Belvedere and Monte Abate. On the 31st, they manage to overcome the German resistance that ends with just 30 men in Belvedere.

In the direction of Monte Santa Croce, the French and Moroccans also break the German lines. The fighting takes place for five days, and the Allied divisions are decimated from the well-defended German positions that also suffer huge losses. On February 5, the Americans have occupied the 500 level of the 800 meters high of Montecassino. Shortly after that, there was 361st Panzer Regiment and a paratrooper battalion to reinforce the German lines that beat hard to preserve the heights. Paratroopers evict Americans who had already taken Mount Calvary.

Freyberg relieves Clark

On February 12, Clark suspended the attack and collapsed downhill, unable to resist the onslaught of German paratroopers and German resistance in the Liri Valley. Americans, decimated, withdraw, leaving the positions reached.

Because of the poor state in which Clark's forces remained, General Alexander offers him the British reserve to restart the attack on Cassino. Clark has no better option than to accept, and New Zealand General Bernard Freyberg relieves the US forces with the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 4th Indian Division, and the 78th British Division.

Although there were no indications that there were German forces in the Abbey of Montecassino, Freyberg conducted a large-scale aerial bombardment against Cassino.

Neither Clark nor Alexander had considered before the millenary Abbey of Montecassino was a legitimate target, but both generals in the company of Generals Juin, French and Anders, Polish, support the measure.

Soon after, those same generals retracted, stating that they had considered it unnecessary and disproportionate, leaving historical responsibility only to Freyberg. To share more responsibilities, General Ira Eaker, in charge of air operations in Italy, does an air reconnaissance before ordering the attack that, for the first time in the course of the war, made use of strategic forces for tactical operation. The war was using long-range heavy bombers, what any moderately capable general considers nonsense.

How It Ends

Although the bomb smoke had not yet dissipated, a wave of protests is rising throughout the world over the destruction of the abbey and the city of Cassino. The Abbot, the monks, and the refugees were then transferred in procession to the Headquarters of the 14th Panzerkorps of General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin.

Eighteen hours after intense bombardment by New Zealand artillery, the British Sussex Battalion advances against Cassino, and 5 Indian battalions climb to the top where they found no German. The capture of Montecassino seemed assured.

But at that time, the paratroopers had allied troops within reach of their fire. The 1st division of Parachute Hunters of General Heidrich, who had responsibility for Cassino's defense, evicted the attackers. In Cassino, Freyberg's forces had crossed the Rapid River, but the paratroopers made them turn around.

In the 13-kilometer-wide sector defended by Heidrich's paratroopers, New Zealanders could not build a single bridge over the Rapid, and less consolidate a front across the river. The weather and exhaustion stop attacks on both sides for three weeks. The rains have formed lakes in the craters made by the bombs, and mudslides occur over the removed earth. Cassino's front is silent except for the sporadic tableting of machine guns.

The second phase of the Battle of Cassino was about, to begin with, Operation Strangle.

Final Thoughts

In each of the campaigns the Italians undertook, Mussolini left the planning process to his generals. But he always reserved the right to have the last word in any military decision. And he frequently disavows decisions and plans that his generals had taken to favor his “political” strategy or not allow his generals to accumulate much power.

A large part of the decisions regarding the army that Mussolini made, before and during the war, was intended to forbid the lead leadership within the army that could threaten his leadership in Italy.

The clear purpose of his war campaigns was to obtain military glory for Italy under his command and not lag behind Hitler. The result was tragic for Italy. This condition made Italy had no better choice than switched sides and attacked the fascist with the US help.