Italy’s darkest hour – Episode 3: Italy surrenders

Wednesday, 29 April 2020 12:15 Written by
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Marcello talks about the time between the fall of Mussolini and Italy’s surrender. The armistice is signed, but at what cost?

Last time we left you with the ousting of Mussolini and his imprisonment, on July 25th.

Hitler has met Mussolini just a few days before, on the 19th, now with his Generals in the “Wolfsschanze”, the Wolf's Lair, he screams irrepressibly: betrayal, betrayal, betrayal, like in WWI. Hitler wants to act now, not recognize Marshal Badoglio’s Government, occupy Italy. His generals induce him to stop, but everyone fully understands that the reassuring statements of the King and Badoglio are a gimmick, they just want to buy time. On the contrary, better to take advantage of the time that this choice makes available to the German armed forces, to gradually invade the country and occupy it.

Now, it all depends on the intentions of the Allies. Where will they strike after Sicily? The Germans have experimented in Sicily with the tactics of a slow, controlled retreat and have no intention of abandoning Southern and Central Italy, which offer many possibilities of valid defence thanks to rivers and mountain ranges. They hope that the Allies will climb the peninsula starting from Calabria, and that’s precisely what they will do, unfortunately for Italy. From the Brenner, units of the Wehrmacht (the German army) begin to flow into Italy, and in South Tyrol they act as if they were already in annexed territory. Formally, in Rome, the relationship between the High Commands remains correct. In reality, the Germans see Italy as a potential ally of the Allies.

For the Allies, the time is ripe. On the evening of 27 July, Commander in Chief Eisenhower sends a clever radio message to the Italians: “You want peace, you can have it immediately….. We come to you as liberators. Your part consists of stopping immediately to cooperate in any way with the German military forces..... As you have already seen in Sicily, our occupation will be mild and beneficient ... The ancient liberties and traditions of your country will be restored”. It is the carrot, accompanied by the stick. At the same time, the Allies intensify bombings on Italian cities. One, in particular, is to be remembered. Milan, August 16th, it's a Sunday. At midnight a wave of RAF bombers targets the city center and one bomb weighing 1.8 tons strikes the area of the church of Santa Maria della Grazie. In the refectory of the church, on the north wall, Leonardo da Vinci painted in 1498 his masterpiece: l’Ultima Cena, the Last Supper. The blast reduces the East wall of the refectory to rubble and brings the roof down with it. Fortunately, in 1940 local art officials concerned about this very possibility had installed sandbags pine scaffoldings and metal bracing on both sides of the North wall. The loss of the East wall and roof dissipates the delicate micro-climate inside the refectory, and the summer heat increases the moisture in the wall causing portions of the painted surface to swell and then lift. The bomb blast dislodges sandbags tossing some of them against the painted surface; the building attached to the backside of the refactoring threatens to collapse. As events in Milan demonstrate, the new technology of aerial bombardments and in particular incendiary weapons puts history's most precious works of art in grave danger. Some of them will disappear, cancelled by the fury of man. It is as a consequence of this bombing that, finally, the Americans establish the famous “Commission for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe”, the corps that will become famous with just 2 words: the Monuments Men. They will play a decisive role in preserving Italy’s treasures and will be one of the main characters in this story.

Now, Badoglio and the King want to get out of the war, so they need to find a way to start negotiations with the Allies, who already in the Casablanca conference have dictated the harsh demand for unconditional surrender. But there is a problem: how to break away from the alliance with the Germans, present in forces on the peninsula, suspicious, ferocious like a wounded tiger? And here begins the ballet, which will soon turn into tragedy.

Marshal Badoglio is obsessed with secrecy. At first, he orders to contact the British and American ambassadors at the Vatican, but they are not able to communicate with their Governments ensuring reasonable secrecy. So he decides to contact the Allies in neutral ground, and chooses Spain and Portugal. He instructs General Castellano, a member of the High Command, to travel to Madrid and contact the British Ambassador. Castellano arrives in Madrid on August 15th. Fortunately, he finds in his office the British Ambassador Hoare, who is unexpectedly quite courteous to him. Castellano tells him that Italy could cooperate with the Anglo-Americans and the Government is willing to accept the unconditional surrender, but it asks to know where the Allies will land next. His purpose is clear, the Italian Government is under the illusion of starting a negotiation among equals. The Ambassador gives him safe conduct for Lisbon with a letter of accreditation for the fellow British ambassador to the Government of Portugal, then telegraphs to the Government in London suggesting that he take into account the offers of the envoy of Badoglio.

In Lisbon, Ambassador Campbell takes time to await the arrival of two military representatives Eisenhower has just sent from his HQ, his Chief of Staff, the American General Smith and the head of Information Services, the English Colonel Strong. They meet with Castellano on August 19th. It's an icy meeting: the two don't salute, they don't shake hands, they just nod. “There is no room for negotiation, Italy must surrender unconditionally”, they say. Castellano asks when and where the main landing in Italy would take place and says that the Italian Government would like the date of the armistice to be known 15 days in advance, to effectively prepare the protection of the Government and the Royal family. Sadly, this is much more important in the negotiations than the hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers scattered throughout Europe. Smith coldly replies that the announcement of the armistice will precede the main landing by a few hours and that the Italians will be notified on the same day.

Castellano is equipped with a radio transmitter and a cypher, and Smith and Strong indicate the date of August 30th as the deadline by which the approval of Italy must be communicated.

Castellano must report to Rome but, given the secrecy of the mission, he cannot use any communication channels. He has no choice but to take the train for the long journey from Lisbon to Rome, where he arrives on August 25th, crossing territories where controls by the Germans are frequent. Now, the incredible happens, to confirm the nervousness and apprehensions of the conspirators. Badoglio is convinced that Castellano's delay is due to an accident, or maybe Castellano has been arrested by the Germans, so he orders a second mission led by General Zanussi, who is to fly directly to Lisbon. The arrival in the Portuguese capital of another Italian delegation produces dismay and surprise among the Allies. Eisenhower, informed of the new mission, wonders: can Italians still be trusted? Out of prudence, he hijacks the plane by which Zanussi is returning to Italy to Algiers, here his advisers question him to clarify if he is a provocateur or a spy. Fortunately, the general manages to clear all doubts and is then detained in Algiers.

August 30th, the terms for surrender expire. Finally, Badoglio decides to accept and with the transceiver (remember?) he sends a message to confirm that Castellano will leave the next day from Rome for Sicily.

September 1st, Castellano meets with Smith and Storm in Cassibile, halfway between Noto and Syracuse. And there he tries again to set conditions and suggests the idea of a joint operation near Rome, which would allow the Italian army to defend Rome and encourage the Italians to fight alongside the Anglo-Americans. The Allies must think about it, and Smith moves the final decision date to the following day at noon. Castellano leaves for Rome. In the evening of September 1st, Badoglio via radio transmits that Italy agrees to surrender and that Castellano will return to Sicily the next day with full powers. Unfortunately, it is not over: Badoglio has ordered Castellano to further bargain the timing and mode of the armistice, trying to know in detail the military contribution of the Allies to the fight.

Castellano arrives on September 2nd at the Cassibile Headquarters. The Allies are in a hurry, are you allowed to sign? NO, Castellano answers. At this point, the Allied negotiators lose patience and are about to send Castellano back to Rome. The Italian negotiator understands it is not possible to prolong the game and asks Badoglio for the authority to sign. Finally, on September 3rd at 4:30 pm under a tent, the official surrender is signed by Smith and Castellano, with Eisenhower standing aside. The announcement will be made jointly at 6:30 p.m. in one of the next few days, indicated by the Allies.

Italy has therefore agreed to abandon its alliance with Germany and to leave the conflict. There is still a question outstanding: the operation on Rome. Two Eisenhower’s aides, General Taylor and Colonel Gardiner set off for Rome to ascertain the real feasibility of the operation, it’s an adventurous journey into enemy territory, they use an Italian corvette to Gaeta and an ambulance into the city. After speaking with some officers of Badoglio’s staff, on the evening of September 7th they ask to confer with the Marshal. But Badoglio tells them that the deployment of the Italian army in Rome will not be completed before September 15th, it is necessary to postpone the announcement of the armistice because otherwise the capital will be occupied by the Germans. Eisenhower does not accept a further delay, he has already decided he will announce the armistice on September 8th and in the meantime suspends the operation on Rome. At 18:30 Radio Algiers announces the armistice with Italy and the end of the fighting. It will be the beginning of one of the darkest periods in the history of Italy.

Read 2231 times Last modified on Friday, 27 October 2023 07:23
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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