ITALY'S DARKEST HOUR - EPISODE 4: SEPTEMBER 8TH

Monday, 29 June 2020 10:02 Written by
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If you ask a non-Italian about September 8th, he will probably answer it is one of the most beautiful days of the year, weatherwise. 

But if you ask an Italian, he will not be happy to talk about it. This date is associated with one of the saddest days in our recent history, one of the most shameful episodes of World War II. Here’s the story.

In the last episode, we talked about the armistice between Italy and the Allies, signed on September 3rd, 1943. But its signature has been kept secret by mutual agreement, until the time when the Allies should conduct an airborne operation jointly with the Italian Army against the Germans, to occupy Rome. The operation is scheduled for September 8th, but the Allies cancel it because the Head of Government Badoglio asks for more time to organize the defence of the Capital. The Commander-in-Chief of the Allies, Eisenhower, has had enough of Badoglio's duplicity and announces, at 6.30 p.m., that the Armistice has been signed.
At this point, Badoglio is forced to broadcast the announcement of the end of hostilities by radio, at 7,30 pm. But the message is ambiguous: "Any act of hostility against Anglo-American forces must cease by Italian forces everywhere. But they will react to attacks from anywhere else”. Badoglio's hope is evident: not calling to arms the entire population aims at reassuring the Germans and facilitating a soft exit of Italy from the old alliance, preventing conspicuous reprisals by the new enemy, especially towards the King and his family, the members of the government and the other military leaders, responsible for the decision. An incredible illusion that will cost so many lives!
5 minutes after Badoglio's message, the German High Command orders the disarmament and the capture of the Italian armed forces, wherever they are. The directive is swiftly implemented in France, the Balkans and Italy. In the evening, the King, Badoglio and their small group of senior officers are still undecided about what to do, they are panicking. They are afraid of falling into the hands of the Germans. Beyond any consideration for their safety, being captured would mean the end of the legal government of the country, thus nullifying the choices made with the armistice. The idea of staying in Rome to lead the resistance against the new enemy is rejected, they can only escape to reach the allied lines and thus save the King, the symbol of the State. The port of Civitavecchia is the closest but it is already occupied, so they decide to leave Rome by car and point to Pescara where an Italian corvette will take the King and his entourage on board and transfer them to Brindisi, hopefully not occupied by the Germans.
And so, in the middle of the night the Royal Family, the Head of the Government Badoglio and the Chiefs of Staff leave Rome after giving summary indications on how to comply with the clauses of the armistice: as to air and naval forces, move to the allied bases, while the army should stay in place. And this is where the tragedy begins.
The haste makes them forget practically everything: whom to assign command to, how to dispose of Mussolini, who in the meantime has been transferred to a shelter on the Mountain of the Gran Sasso, and above all how to react in the case of German attacks, however already underway. The escape is an incredible success: despite being stopped at some checkpoints, which strangely give the go-ahead, the caravan reaches Pescara and the group embarks on the Corvette Bayonet for Brindisi, where it arrives on September 10.
When the corvette docks in the port of Brindisi, the fate of the Italian armed forces is already dramatically sealed. Without orders from their Commands, the various army units melt; officers and soldiers leave the barracks dressed as civilians and with only one goal: to reach their homes. Those who have not left their positions are disarmed and captured by the Germans: they begin an odyssey on the cattle wagons that will lead them to German lagers, as a workforce. This is also the case in Yugoslavia and Greece. Nearly half a million Italian soldiers are taken prisoners. In the following 48 hours, the great Italian cities, as well as the entire transport and communication network of the country, are firmly in the hands of the Germans, and the easy enthusiasm that the announcement of the armistice had created in the population fades sadly. Italy is under Hitler's control, with little or no resistance. Only in Rome, Grenadiers together with civilians fight against German troops, no orders and support coming from the High Command.
Outside Italy, only a few units resist. The fiercest resistance is opposed by the Army Division Acqui, on the island of Kefalonia in Greece. After 2 days of combat, on September 11th the Germans present Commander General Gandin with an ultimatum, requiring him to choose among 3 options: continue fighting alongside the Germans; fight against the Germans; surrender their weapons. General Gandin decides to consult the troops: almost all soldiers answer that they want to fight. On September 15th, the battle is resumed and lasts until the 22nd. The resistance of the Acqui, abandoned to itself, is crushed by the strong German reinforcements. The German Stukas bomb and machine-gun the Italian troops, which defend themselves with courage. Even before the surrender, the Germans eliminate in mass shootings the Italian soldiers, once they are taken prisoner and unarmed. This will happen only in Kefalonia and at the will of Hitler, who personally orders not to take prisoners on the island because of the "betrayal" of the Acqui.
On the 22nd the Italians, after losing 55 officers and more than 3,000 soldiers, surrender. After the surrender, the Germans shoot 4,800 soldiers and 341 officers, including the Division Commander, General Gandin. While transported to the mainland, another 2,000 soldiers lose their lives on sinking ships, after crossing a mine area.
Thus begins for Italy the gloomiest and darkest moment in its recent history. The country is not out of the conflict at all, as the King and Prime Minister Badoglio had incredibly foreseen. Along the peninsula, a devastating and bloody conflict between the opposing German and Anglo American armies begins. Fascism, believed to be torn down, resurfaces under Hitler's protection and civil war begins. Mussolini has been freed by a German commando on September 12th from his captivity on the Grand Sasso and will speak on September 18th from Radio Munich, announcing the birth of a new fascist state.

Read 489 times Last modified on Monday, 29 June 2020 10:17
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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