Galeazzo Ciano’s last reflections before execution

Count Ciano, as Italian Foreign Minister, had a unique perspective on the diplomatic manoeuvres before and during the war. Here during the Munich crisis in September 1938, with Neville Chamberlain and Mussolini.
Count Ciano, as Italian Foreign Minister, had a unique perspective on the diplomatic manoeuvres before and during the war. Here during the Munich crisis in September 1938, with Neville Chamberlain and Mussolini.
From left Goring, Ciano, Hitler and Mussolini in 1938.
From left Goring, Ciano, Hitler and Mussolini in 1938.

In Italy Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son in law and former Foreign Minister now knew, after almost a year of imprisonment, that he faced death by firing squad in the following days. He had fallen foul of the rapidly changing circumstances in Italian politics. Italy was a divided country, with the south now fighting alongside the Allies, whilst in the north a re-instated Mussolini (after his rescue from imprisonment at Gran Sasso) was ostensibly head of a new regime, although the only decisions that counted were made by the Germans.

Ciano had long kept a diary which had much to say about the real relationship between Mussolini and Hitler, how the war was conducted between the two of them, and many insights into the characters of the senior Nazis like Goring.

Undoubtedly Ciano would have produced a much more illuminating memoir had he had the opportunity. Now that he faced his end, on the 23rd december he managed to get a substantial postscript to his diary smuggled out of prison, in which he dwelt upon why Italy had got caught up in Hitler’s war:

I should have liked to fix the responsibility both of men and governments with a greater wealth of detail, but unfortunately this was impossible, even though there might come to my mind, in these last hours, so many details that I should like to make known to those who tomorrow will analyze and interpret events.

The Italian tragedy in my opinion, had its beginnings in August 1939, when, having gone to Salzburg on my own initiative, I suddenly found myself face to face with the cynical German determination to provoke the conflict. The alliance had been signed in May. I had always been opposed to it, and for a long time I made sure that the persistent German offers were allowed to drift.

There was no reason whatever, in my opinion, for us to be bound in life and death to the destiny of Nazi Germany. Instead, I favored a policy of collaboration, because given our geographic position we can and must detest the 80 million Germans, brutally set in the heart of Europe, but we cannot ignore them.

The decision to enter the alliance was taken by Mussolini, suddenly, while I was in Milan with von Ribbentrop. Some American newspapers had reported that the Lombard metropolis had received the German Minister with hostility and that this was proof of Mussolini’s diminished personal prestige.

Hence his wrath. I received by telephone the most peremptory orders to accede to German demands for an alliance, which for more than a year I had left unanswered and had thought of keeping that way for a much longer time. That was how “The Pact of Steel” was born. A decision that wrought such a sinister influence upon the entire life and future of the Italian people was due entirely to the spiteful reaction of a dictator to the irresponsible and worthless utterances of foreign journalists.

However, the alliance had a clause; namely that for a period of three or four years neither Italy nor Germany would create controversies capable of upsetting the peace in Europe.

Not only had Italy got sucked into the war against its true interests, it had been kept deliberately in the dark about the true intentions of Hitler to start a war in the East:

“Dear Ciano,” said von Ribbentrop with studied deliberation. “Dear Ciano, I cannot tell you anything as yet because every decision is locked in the impenetrable bosom of the Fuhrer. However, one thing is certain: if we attack them, the Russia of Stalin will be erased from the map within eight weeks.” Thus, in addition to a notable case of bad faith against Italy, there is also a blatant misconception of reality, sufficient at least to help lose a war ….

See The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943: The Complete, Unabridged Diaries of Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1936-1943

Drawn group of Italians standing outside their temporary home, which is a cave in the hillside near Mignano. Many inhabitants from the town fled to these natural shelters when the village was under American and German artillery. Woman at right never leaves the religious statue out of her hands. 15 November 1943, Signal Corps.
Drawn group of Italians standing outside their temporary home, which is a cave in the hillside near Mignano. Many inhabitants from the town fled to these natural shelters when the village was under American and German artillery. Woman at right never leaves the religious statue out of her hands. 15 November 1943, Signal Corps.
Mignano, 22nd December 1943, after its capture from the Germans. This is its main street now heaped with wreckage. Civilians can be seen searching the ruins for salvageable material and a family group stands by a blasted building where they still maintain a home.
Mignano, 22nd December 1943, after its capture from the Germans. This is its main street now heaped with wreckage. Civilians can be seen searching the ruins for salvageable material and a family group stands by a blasted building where they still maintain a home.

The Allies welcomed as they enter Naples

Daimler scout car of 1st King's Dragoon Guards at the town hall in Naples, 1 October 1943.
Daimler scout car of 1st King’s Dragoon Guards at the town hall in Naples, 1 October 1943.
A truck carrying American troops moves through a rubble-filled street in Naples.
A truck carrying American troops moves through a rubble-filled street in Naples.

Finally the Allies were able to break out of the Salerno bridgehead and make progress northwards. The Kings Dragoon Guards entered the city on the morning of the 1st October, closely followed by substantial Allied forces, including General Mark Clark, later in the day.

The Germans had withdrawn to a better defence line, but not before they had destroyed what they could of the great city. They attacked not just the harbour area that would facilitate the Allied advance but municipal facilities that served the general population. The main aqueduct bringing water to the city was blown up and explosives were dropped into over forty main sewer lines. It did not take long for disease to take hold.

Every vessel in the harbour had been sunk, along with the entire fishing fleet. Almost every factory had been looted and then gutted. Alongside this were the libraries and art collections that were gratuitously burnt to the ground. It was a foretaste of what was to come for the rest of Italy.

Amongst those arriving that day was the journalist Alan Moorehead:

As we drove over the Sorrento peninsula and caught sight of the city for the first time it appeared that nothing had changed. The black cone of Vesuvius smoking gracefully on the right. The island of Capri serenely floating beyond the mouth of the bay. The crenellated city spilled along the shore, and that same mesmerizing blueness in the water. Sunshine and orange groves. Brilliant creepers on the tumbling walls. The enervating atmosphere of a long lazy summer’s afternoon.

Driving through Castellamare and Pompeii the crowd thickened steadily along the road. On the outskirts of Naples itself it was one tumultuous mob of screaming, hysterical people, and this continued all the way into the centre of the city. They had been cruelly bombed. There had been spasmodic street fighting for a week. And now they stood on the pavement and leaned out of their balcony windows screaming at the Allied soldiers and the passing trucks.

They screamed in relief and in pure hysteria. In tens of thousands the dirty ragged children kept crying for biscuits and sweets. When we stopped the jeep we were immediately surrounded and overwhelmed. Thrusting hands plucked at our clothing. Pane. Biscotti. Sigarette. In every direction there was a wall of emaciated, hungry, dirty faces.

I had had the notion that the people would be hostile, or
resentful, or perhaps reserved. I had expected that they would indicate in some way the feelings they had had as enemies in the past three years.

But there was no question of war or enmity here. Hunger governed all. There were some who in their need fawned and grovelled. They thrust their dribbling children forward to whine and plead. VVhen a soldier threw out a handful of sweets there was a mad rush to the pavement, and women and men and children beat at each other as they scrabbled on the cobblestones.

It had not needed the Allied invasion to throw the social economy of the country out of gear; it was steadily decaying of its own accord. And yet this was an Axis partner, not a country beaten and occupied by the Germans. For three years Mussolini had been on the winning side. He was lord of the Balkans. He even occupied part of France.

Italy had every reason to fare better than any country in Europe save Germany. Its government had been in office for two decades. And now here was Naples broken and half-starving. In addition, something more precious than buildings and bridges was gone; the spirit of the people themselves. They had no will any more. They were reduced to the final humiliation of begging from the people they had tried to kill.

For anyone who loved Italy it was a bitter experience to come to Naples. The traditional talents of the people, their charm and generosity, seemed for a little to have vanished in the savage and abject struggle for existence. I met quite a number of distinguished and honourable Italians in Naples, good haters of Fascism for many years, and the thing that they saw clearly at last was this: ‘We failed to revolt. Everything had derived from that. Nothing we could have suffered in a revolt against Fascism would have been as bad as this.’

See Alan Moorehead: Eclipse

Cheering crowds great Allied troops as they enter Naples, 1 October 1943.
Cheering crowds great Allied troops as they enter Naples, 1 October 1943.
The twisted metal of a wrecked gantry crane destroyed by Germans, lying in Naples harbour.
The twisted metal of a wrecked gantry crane destroyed by Germans, lying in Naples harbour.

Mussolini is rescued in daring Fallschirmjäger raid

A view of the remote hotel on Gran Sasso where Mussolini was being detained by the new Badoglio regime, as seen by the German glider rescue force.
A view of the remote hotel on Gran Sasso where Mussolini was being detained by the new Badoglio regime, as seen by the German glider rescue force.
One of the gliders on the mountainside, illustrating the tight landing area.
One of the gliders on the mountainside, illustrating the tight landing area.
Fallschirmjäger leave their glider and make for the hotel.
Fallschirmjäger leave their glider and make for the hotel.
One of the Gliders that landed close to the Hotel Campo Imperatore.
One of the Gliders that landed close to the Hotel Campo Imperatore.
Para troopers with one of the gliders that landed on the mountainside.
Paratroopers with one of the gliders that landed on the mountainside.
One of the gliders that crashed during the landing.
One of the gliders that crashed during the landing.
Fallschirmjäger who were injured when their glider crashed.
Fallschirmjäger who were injured when their glider crashed.
Parachute troops with one of the light artillery pieces that they took with them.
Parachute troops with one of the light artillery pieces that they took with them.

Hitler had been incensed by capitulation of the ‘traitorous’ Italians and German forces swiftly took control of the country. The prospect of the Allies moving easily up the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’, as Churchill had once imagined, proved to be quite false. Mountainous Italy, with nearly all its rivers running across the path of the Allied advance northwards, was soon revealed to be almost perfect terrain for the slow defensive war that the Germans now chose to fight.

The political situation was more complicated, with the new Italian government eventually declaring war against Germany. Hitler wanted a pro German regime. The first step was restoring Mussolini to power. Hitler was very keen to rescue Mussolini, who he regarded as a personal friend, from imprisonment. The daring raid of the 12th September attracted world wide attention.

Hitler’s Propaganda Chief, Josef Goebbels welcomed the publicity. He was rather less sure that restoring Mussolini to power, even in a puppet regime, was a good idea:

Liberation in the Apennines was undertaken with gliders. One of these landed fifty feet in front of the hostelry in which the Duce was staying. Within a few minutes he was free. He was of course deeply touched at being rescued from captivity by German soldiers.

Our soldiers proceeded pretty brutally and thereby kept the Italian Carabinieri guards in check. A few hours later the Duce was in Vienna. Just before calling me the Fuehrer had had a telephone conversation with him.

He told me that the Duce was deeply shaken by developments. He informed the Fuehrer that he was tired and sick and would first of all like to have a long sleep. On Monday he wanted to visit his family in Munich. We shall soon see whether he is still capable of large-scale political activity. The Fuehrer thinks so. At any rate he will meet Mussolini at G.H.Q. on Tuesday.

However much I may be touched on the human side by the Duce’s liberation, I am nevertheless sceptical about its political advantages. With the Duce out of the way, we had a chance to wipe the slate clean in Italy.

Without any restraint, and basing our action on the grandiose treachery of the Badoglio regime, we could force a solution of all our problems regarding Italy.

See Joseph Goebbels: The Goebbels Diaries

Mussolini poses with SS-Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny.
Mussolini poses with SS-Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny.
Mussolini is escorted by the rescue party.
Mussolini is escorted by the rescue party.
The Fiesler Storch light aircraft that carried Mussolini and Skorzeny off the mountain, the landing strip was very short.
The Fiesler Storch light aircraft that carried Mussolini and Skorzeny off the mountain, the landing strip was very short.
German troops salute Mussolini on his departure from Gran Sasso.
German troops salute Mussolini on his departure from Gran Sasso.
Mussolini embarks in the Fiesler Storch, about to take off  from a perilously short landing strip.
Mussolini embarks in the Fiesler Storch, about to take off from a perilously short landing strip.

Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini is deposed

Mussolini in Tripoli during a visit to Libya. He is pictured on horseback brandishing the "Sword of Islam" which was presented to him by an Arab delegation. His plans to grab Egypt from the British had been a humiliating failure - now Italy faced war on home soil.
Mussolini in Tripoli during a visit to Libya. He is pictured on horseback brandishing the “Sword of Islam” which was presented to him by an Arab delegation. His plans to grab Egypt from the British had been a humiliating failure – now Italy faced even worse – war on home soil.

On the 18th July 1943 Hitler had travelled to Italy to see Mussolini. He attempted to give Mussolini some encouragement to strengthen the resolve of the Italian armed forces in the war. It was a very one sided meeting, with Hitler lecturing the Italian leader at length. Mussolini was uncharacteristically quiet because he could give Hitler no proper answer. He knew that support for the war was ebbing away in Italy – but it was not an argument that would carry any weight with Hitler.

The most recent landings in Sicily had brought matters to a head. On the 24th Mussolini’s own Fascist Council voted against him. He turned to the Head of State, the King of Italy, and apparently was surprised when he did not receive the support that he expected to receive.

It was now obvious to almost everyone that Italy had backed the losing side and was heading for catastrophe. The Allied arguments were persuasive – both those made by leaflet and those made by force of arms. General Badoglio was summoned to form a new government, he gave this account of how he heard from the King about how Mussolini finally lost power:

The King was quite calm and told me at once what had happened. What he said made so deep an impression on me that I can repeat it almost word for word.

‘This morning Mussolini asked me for an interview, which I fixed for this afternoon at 4. p.m. at this villa. When he arrived Mussolini told me that a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council had been held and had passed a vote of censure on him, but he believed that this resolution was not in order.

‘I replied at once that I did not agree with him; the Grand Council was an organ of State which he himself had created by means of a law which had been passed by the Chamber and the Senate; therefore every decision of the Grand Council was valid.

“Then, according to Your Majesty I ought to resign,” he said with considerable violence.

“Yes,” I answered, and told him that I forthwith accepted his resignation.’

His Majesty added: ‘When he heard this Mussolini collapsed as if he had had a blow over the heart. “Then my ruin is complete,” he muttered hoarsely.’

Having taken leave of His Majesty, Mussolini went out, and not seeing his car, he asked an officer where it had gone. ‘It is standing in the shade at the side of the Villa,’ the officer answered.

Mussolini went in the direction indicated when he suddenly he found himself surrounded by secret police who asked him to get into a motor ambulance which was standing a little distance away. ‘Can’t I use my car ?’ he asked, ‘and where are you taking me to’ ‘To a place where you will be quite safe,’ answered the officer. Without saying anything more, Mussolini got into the motor ambulance and was taken to a Carabinieri barracks.

The King then asked me to become Head of the Government; I knew that the country trusted me, that His Majesty would be embarrassed if I refused, and that my refusal would still further complicate a situation which called for immediate action.

I put all personal considerations on one side and faced the terrible responsibility I was undertaking. I answered, ‘I am very conscious of my lack of political experience; I have never taken any part in politics, but I under- stand the pressing needs of the moment and I accept.

As for my colleagues in the Ministry, I have here a list of the politicians who have promised to collaborate and of the parties they represent.’

I read to His Majesty the names of Bonomi as Minister of Internal Affairs, Casati as Minister of Education, of Soleri, of Bergamini, of Einaudi, and others.

The King was entirely opposed to this plan. He said that I would have to act with great rapidity and energy both internally and in our relations with the Germans, and that I must not be surrounded by politicians.

‘You must have a Ministry of experts,’ he added, ‘who will carry out your orders efficiently.’ ‘But as a result,’ I said, ‘I shall be entirely cut off from public opinion and shall have no contact with the feeling of the country.’

‘No’, said the King, ‘the whole country is with you and will follow you. I am sure that your political friends will support you even if they are not in the Ministry. Here is a list of the new Ministers; they are all experienced and capable officials, with whom you can work.’

So, as the King was determined to have his own way, I ended by agreeing.

See Pietro Badoglio: Italy in the Second World War: Memories and Documents

General Pietro Badoglio became Italy's Prime Minister after Mussolini was deposed.
General Pietro Badoglio became Italy’s Prime Minister after Mussolini was deposed.

Roosevelt and Churchill appeal to the Italians

A captured Italian 305mm gun being fired at night by the British during the Battle for Catania. This was the biggest gun used during the campaign.
A captured Italian 305mm gun being fired at night by the British during the Battle for Catania. This was the biggest gun used during the campaign.
A soldier guards a group of German and Italian prisoners taken at Noto, 12 July 1943.
A soldier guards a group of German and Italian prisoners taken at Noto, 12 July 1943.

The Italians had not had a good war. Even though Mussolini was in alliance with Germany in the ‘Pact of Steel’ he had still not entered the war until he thought both France and Britain were beaten and he could grab a little of the spoils of victory. All his other military adventures had ended in disaster.

He had been thrown out of East Africa. In the Balkans his attempt to invade tiny, poor Albania had seen a reverse campaign which put him on the defensive. Humiliatingly Germany had had to come to his rescue both there and in North Africa, where the British had achieved stunning victories until the Afrika Korps arrived. On the Eastern Front Italian troops had suffered grievously in the retreat following Stalingrad.

Now it did not need much Intelligence from captured Italian prisoners for the Allies to judge the state of morale amongst Italians and Italian troops. The Sicilian troops on Sicily were not making making valiant attempts to defend their homeland, as had been hoped. Instead in many places they were putting up a merely nominal fight before surrendering. Others were ‘self- demobilising’ as they returned to their homes around the island and found civilian clothes.

Now Roosevelt and Churchill appealed directly to Italians to try to edge them out of the war. It was a message re-inforced with threat – Rome would be bombed for the first time on 19th July. This was the carefully worded text that was dropped, in hundreds of thousands of leaflets, on Rome and other Italian cities on the 17th July:

This is a message to the Italian people from the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. At this moment the combined armed forces of the United States and Great Britain, under the command of General Eisenhower and his Deputy, General Alexander, are carrying the war deep into the territory of your country.

This is the direct consequence of the shameful leadership to which you have been subjected by Mussolini and his Fascist regime. Mussolini carried you into this war as the satellite of a brutal destroyer of peoples and liberties.

Mussolini plunged you into a war which he thought Hitler had already won. In spite of Italy’s great vulnerability to attack by air and sea, your Fascist leaders sent your sons, your ships, your air forces, to distant battlefields to aid Germany in her attempt to conquer England, Russia, and the world. This association with the designs of Nazi-controlled Germany was unworthy of Italy’s ancient traditions of freedom and culture – traditions to which the people of America and Great Britain owe so much.

Your soldiers have fought, not in the interests of Italy, but for Nazi Germany. They have fought courageously, but they have been betrayed and abandoned by the Germans on the Russian Front and on every battlefield in Africa from El Alamein to Cape Bon.

Today Germany’s hopes for world conquest have been blasted on all fronts. The skies over Italy are dominated by the vast air armadas of the United States and Great Britain. Italy’s seacoasts are threatened by the greatest accumulation of British and Allied sea-power ever concentrated in the Mediterranean.

The forces now opposed to you are pledged to destroy the power of Nazi Germany, which has ruthlessly been used to inict slavery, destruction, and death on all those who refuse to recognise the Germans as the master race.

The sole hope for Italy’s survival lies in honourable capitulation to the overwhelming power of the military forces of the United Nations. If you continue to tolerate the Fascist régime, which serves the evil power of the Nazis, you must suffer the consequences of your own choice.

We take no satisfaction in invading Italian soil and bringing the tragic devastation of war home to the Italian people; but we are determined to destroy the false leaders and their doctrines which have brought Italy to her present position. Every moment that you resist the combined forces of the United Nations – every drop of blood that you sacrice-can serve only one purpose: to give the Fascist and Nazi leaders a little more time to escape from the inevitable consequences of their own crimes.

All your interests and all your traditions have been betrayed by Germany and your own false and corrupt leaders; it is only by disavowing both that a reconstituted Italy can hope to occupy a respected place in the family of European nations.

The time has now come for you, the Italian people, to consult your own self-respect and your own interests and your own desire for a restoration of national dignity, security, and peace.

The time has come for you to decide whether Italians shall die for Mussolini and Hitler – or live for Italy, and for civilisation.

ROOSEVELT
CHURCHILL

A civilian resident of Misterbianco, near Catania, paints the slogan 'Viva England' on a wall after the village had been occupied by the Eighth Army.
A civilian resident of Misterbianco, near Catania, paints the slogan ‘Viva England’ on a wall after the village had been occupied by the Eighth Army.
Troops play with small children near Solarino, 13 July 1943.
Troops play with small children near Solarino, 13 July 1943.

Mussolini sacks his Foreign Minister, Count Ciano

Mussolini and Hitler in the heady days of 1940 when it seemed that nothing could stop Hitler. Mussolini’s military adventures, attempting to emulate his friend and ally, all soon collapsed.

The war had not gone well for Italy. Although Mussolini was in a formal alliance with Hitler at the outbreak of the war he had not declared war on France and Britain – until he saw the success of the German panzers blitzkrieg through France in 1940. Even in these circumstances his troops were rebuffed by the French. His gamble to grab Egypt from Britain had failed spectacularly, as had his invasion of Albania.

His Mediterranean fleet had repeatedly fallen foul of the Royal Navy. Hitler had had to come running to his assistance in the Balkans and North Africa, a diversion which he was later to blame for causing a critical delay in launching the invasion of Russia. Now Mussolini’s finest Alpine troops were suffering an ignominious retreat on the Eastern front.

It was not surprising that Mussolini sensed opposition to him within his own regime. Now he acted to shore up his support. He had a close personal relationship with his son-in-law Count Ciano who was also his Foreign Minister. But he knew that Ciano had always had reservations about the alliance with Germany. Now he sacked him.

The ceremonial signing of the alliance pact between Germany and Italy in the Ambassadors' Chamber of the new Reichschancellery by the Italian foreign minister, Count Ciano and Reichsminister for Foreign Affairs von Ribbentrop. 20-25 May 1939
The ceremonial signing of the alliance pact between Germany and Italy in the Ambassadors’ Chamber of the new Reichschancellery by the Italian foreign minister, Count Ciano and Reichsminister for Foreign Affairs von Ribbentrop. 20-25 May 1939

Ciano had been at the heart of the Italian government and had been present on most of the occasions when Mussolini met Hitler. His diaries reveal much more than the diplomatic manoeuvres of the war and many acute observations of the personalities involved:

February 8, 1943

I hand over my office at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Then I go to the Palazzo Venezia to see the Duce and take leave of him.

He tells me “Now you must consider that you are going to have a period of rest. Then your turn will come again. Your future is in my hands, and therefore you need not worry!” He thanks me for what I have done and quickly enumerates my most important services. “If they had given us three years’ time we might have been able to wage war under different conditions or perhaps it would not have been at all necessary to wage it.”

He then asked me if I had all my documents in order.

“Yes,” I answered. “I have them all in order, and remember, when hard times come – because it is now certain that hard times will come – I can document all the treacheries perpetrated against us by the Germans, one after another, from the preparation of the conflict to the war on Russia, communicated to us when their troops had already crossed the border. If you need them I shall provide the details, or, better still, I shall, within the space of 24 hours, prepare that speech which I have had in my mind for three years, because I shall burst if I do not deliver it.”

He listened to me in silence and almost agreed with me. Today he was concerned about the situation because the retreat on the Eastern Front continues to be almost a rout.

He has invited me to see him frequently, “even every day.” Our leave-taking was cordial, for which I am very glad, because I like Mussolini, like him very much, and what I shall miss the most will be my contact with him.

This was to be the penultimate entry in his diary. See The Ciano Diaries

Hitler and Mussolini at one of a series of meetings in the Brenner Pass. On the right is Count Ciano the Italian Foreign Minister.
Hitler and Mussolini at one of a series of meetings in the Brenner Pass. On the right is Count Ciano the Italian Foreign Minister.

Mussolini – the Italians are not up to this war

Hitler and Mussolini at one of a series of meetings in the Brenner Pass. On the right is Count Ciano the Italian Foreign Minister.

Count Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, was once again on hand to record a revealing insight into the outlook of Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator. It was Mussolini himself who had the largest personal responsibility for the dire position of the Italian armed forces.

Rodolfo Graziani had commanded the Italian forces in Libya in 1940 – and had been very reluctant to launch an invasion of British occupied Egypt in 1940, believing that the largely unmechanised Italian forces would be no match for the British, despite their superiority in numbers. When he was threatened with demotion he went ahead with Mussolini’s requested invasion.

The resulting series of [permalink id=9877 text=”humiliating defeats”] for the Italians had seen them thrown out of Egypt and Libya invaded. They had only been saved by the arrival of [permalink id=10276 text=”Rommel”] and German forces. Now Graziani was being used as a scapegoat for the debacle – although ultimately he was saved by his personal loyalty to Mussolini:

7th March 1942

The Duce, who is dissatisfied with the way things are going, said, “This war is not for the Italian people. The Italian people do not have the maturity or the consistency for such a tremendous and decisive test. This war is for the Germans and the Japanese, not for us.”

Luigi Cortese, Consul General in Geneva, informs us that fear of invasion is over in Switzerland because no one any longer believes in a complete German victory. In fact, the forecasts are of an entirely different nature. It is believed that, having once more banged her head against Russia in the coming offensive without achieving a decisive success, Germany will have to give up before winter. Feeling toward Italy has improved a lot. In fact, it is quite favorable for certain future possibilities which are hopefully being fostered in Switzerland.

Mussolini received Revel’s report following the investigation of Graziani. It appears to be very hard on Graziani. The Duce will give me a copy of it. Mussolini does not know whether to have him court-martialed or get rid of him administratively through retirement. I would be in favor of the latter solution in time of war. The Duce accuses Graziani of having been responsible for three serious losses to the country: a blow to its military prestige, the arrival of the Germans into Italy, and the loss of the empire. The Duce now feels that we must attack Tobruk, or else the British will deal us another blow.

Japanese admirals have informed us that they intend to proceed toward India. The Axis must move toward them in the Persian Gulf

See The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943: The Complete, Unabridged Diaries of Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1936-1943

Mussolini plays at war

German soldiers manning an anti aircraft gun overlooking an Italian port.

July 22, 1941

Dummy air raids continue at Rome. It was the Duce who personally ordered an air raid in the capital every time there is one in Naples.

He does this because he wants to give the country the impression that a war is taking place. He has also ordered that at the first opportunity anti-aircraft guns should fire in order to make it more exciting.

Is all this worthwhile? If we listen to comments on the street, I should say not at all.

There is more insistent news about the coming English offensive in Libya.

See The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943: The Complete, Unabridged Diaries of Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1936-1943

Italian partisans triumph – and capture Mussolini

British aid to Partisans in northern Italy, April - May 1945.A consignment of shirts and battledress is packed into containers for dropping to the partisans.
British aid to Partisans in northern Italy, April – May 1945.A consignment of shirts and battledress is packed into containers for dropping to the partisans.
On the field just outside Cuneo, not far from the border between Italy and France, partisans wait for the containers carrying supplies to land. The mountains in the background are the French Alps.
On the field just outside Cuneo, not far from the border between Italy and France, partisans wait for the containers carrying supplies to land. The mountains in the background are the French Alps.

Italian anti fascist partisans had been playing an increasingly important role in the war, ever since Italy had deposed Mussolini and then switched sides in 1943. They fought a bitter guerrilla war against the occupying Germans, despite many cruel reprisals against the civilian population. By the spring of 1945, supplied with arms by the Allies, they had grown to become a very significant force.

On the 25th April the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (Committee of National Liberation, or CLN) began an open insurrection in the remaining occupied area of northern Italy. The Germans surrendered in Turin and Milan, and later in Genoa. Some German units were now allowed to make their way north to Switzerland and Austria, but they were not permitted to take their Italian collaborators with them.

Elsewhere there were reprisals as the Germans were hunted down. New Zealand Intelligence officer Geoffrey Cox recounts one episode from his dealings with Italian partisans during this period:

At the new area a group of partisans with red scarves were waiting. They had been stopped by our own troops down by the river bank as suspicious characters. Enthusiastically (they were not yet disillusioned) they explained that they wanted to help.

They had been told that there were several Germans hiding in this area. One, they said, was patently an officer. Gold braid had been seen on his shoulders. Could they not carry on with the search?

It took only five minutes to get their papers checked and to set them loose. At the same time we put part of the Headquarters Defence Platoon out on the same quest. ‘Any prisoners you can get will be valuable,’ I told the bearded partisan leader. He grinned. ‘Si, si. Prigionieri,’ he said.

Half an hour later there were shots down by the river bank. An hour later the partisans were back. They had found the Germans, three of them. One was certainly an officer. Where was he? Ah, he had tried to escape. A very foolish fellow. ‘Molto stupido, molto stupido.’ But here were his documents. And they handed over a blood-stained bundle.

I opened the top pay-book. Hauptmann. So he was an officer all right. An anti-tank gunner. Two passport photographs fell out of the book. The face on them might well have come from a stock propaganda shot of the stern S.S. man. Here were those deep-set eyes, that hard thin mouth, that cheek crossed with duelling scars, that sleek yellow hair, that square German head of the ideal Nazi type.

Every detail in the book bore out the picture. The man had been in the S.S. from the early days of Hitlerism; his list of decorations filled a whole page at the back. ‘Medal for the Einmarsch into Austria: Medal for the Einmarsch into Czechoslovakia: Medal for the Polish campaign: Iron Cross Second Class in France. Served with the infantry in Russia: Transferred to the anti-tank gunners at the end of 1943: Iron Cross First Class in the Crimea for destroying two ‘feindlicher Panzer Kampfwagen’.

The medal of the Iron Cross, its ribbon stained crimson brown above its red, black and white, lay amongst the papers. The Hauptmann’s book was full of photographs of Storm Troops and of soldiers, of sisters in white blouses and dark skirts, of a heavy-built father with close-cropped hair, of other young officers with the same relentless faces.

This was the type Hitler had loosed on Europe, brave, desperate, efficient. And now he had come to his end in an Italian field, shot down by an Italian farmer’s boy with a Sten gun, shot in the back, I learned later, as he crouched in hiding.

See Geoffrey Cox: The Road to Trieste

Partisans about to set off on a recce in the Albe area. Standing in the car is Captain Macdonald commanding the personnel of the Special Air Service group operating in the area.
Partisans about to set off on a recce in the Albe area. Standing in the car is Captain Macdonald commanding the personnel of the Special Air Service group operating in the area.
Three heavily armed members of No 2 SAS Regiment, draped with ammunition belts and each carrying components of a Vickers heavy machine gun, climb a mountain path as they go out on an operation to assist Italian partisans in the Castino area of northern Italy.
Three heavily armed members of No 2 SAS Regiment, draped with ammunition belts and each carrying components of a Vickers heavy machine gun, climb a mountain path as they go out on an operation to assist Italian partisans in the Castino area of northern Italy.

It was on the 27th April that a column of German trucks made their way north to Switzerland. Amongst the group was Benito Mussolini, thinly disguised in a German army helmet, and his mistress, intending to take a plane to Spain. The group was checked by communists of the 52nd Garibaldi Partisan Brigade in the village of Dongo on Lake Como – and Mussolini was immediately recognised by Urbano Lazzaro, the political officer. That evening Radio Milano announced:

The head of this association of delinquents, Mussolini, while yellow with rancour and fear and trying to cross the Swiss frontier, has been arrested. He must be handed over to a tribunal of the people so it can judge him quickly. We want this, even though we think an execution platoon is too much of an honour for this man. He would deserve to be killed like a mangy dog.

There are differing accounts of what happened next but within 24 hours Mussolini had been summarily executed by the partisans. Winston Churchill was to express shock when he saw the subsequent photographs – but later wrote “at least the world was spared an Italian Nuremberg”.

The body of Mussolini, his mistress Clara Petacchi and colleagues were driven to Milan where they were exhibited in a piazza on 29th April. An unruly mob stamped and spat on the bodies before they were hoisted up for all to see.
The body of Mussolini, his mistress Clara Petacci and colleagues were driven to Milan where they were exhibited in a piazza on 29th April. An unruly mob stamped and spat on the bodies before they were hoisted up for all to see.

Hitler meets Mussolini at the Brenner Pass

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini meet at the Brenner Pass
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini meet at the Brenner Pass

On March 18th 1940 Hitler met the Italian leader Mussolini in his railway carriage in the Brenner Pass, high in the Alps, close to the border between the two countries. The haste with which the meeting was arranged had led Mussolini to suppose that Hitler ‘would soon set off the powder keg’. In the journey to the meeting Mussolini tells his Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, that the Italians will not join the war until the moment that is ‘convenient’ to them, that they will form the ‘left wing’ of the offensive, tying up troops without actually fighting. After the meeting, however, it seems less certain that Hitler will go to war. Ciano records the meeting in his diary:

The Hitler meeting is very cordial on both sides. The conference … is more a monologue than anything else. Continue reading “Hitler meets Mussolini at the Brenner Pass”