Operation Achse

Operation Achse
Part of the Italian Campaign of World War II

Disarmed Italian soldiers marching to captivity in Bolzano.
Date8–19 September 1943
LocationItaly, Balkans, Southern France
Result German victory
Kingdom of Italy Italy
Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Yugoslavia
Nazi Germany Germany
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Italy Vittorio Ambrosio
Kingdom of Italy Mario Roatta
Kingdom of Italy Ezio Rosi (POW)
Kingdom of Italy Mario Vercellino (POW)
Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Peko Dapcevic
Nazi Germany Albert Kesselring
Nazi Germany Erwin Rommel
Nazi Germany Gerd von Runstedt
Nazi Germany Maximilian von Weichs
Nazi Germany Alexander Löhr
Romania Ion Antonescu
60 divisions (26 in Italy, 31 in the Balkans, 3 in France) 40 divisions (17 in Italy, 19 in the Balkans, 4 in France)
Casualties and losses
20,000–30,000 killed
800,000 prisoners
5 midget submarines captured by Romanians, many more warships captured by the Germans

Operation Achse (German: Fall Achse, "Case Axis"), originally called Operation Alaric (German: Unternehmen Alarich), was the codename of the German plans to forcibly disarm the Italian armed forces after their expected armistice with the Allied forces in 1943. Several German divisions had already entered Italy after the fall of Benito Mussolini in July 1943 (the Grand Council of Fascism had deposed Mussolini on 25 July), while Italy was officially still an ally of Germany, despite the protests of the new Italian government under Pietro Badoglio.

The Armistice of Cassibile (signed on 3 September 1943) was made public on 8 September. Then, the German forces moved rapidly to take over the Italian zones of occupation in the Balkans and southern France, and to disarm Italian forces in Italy. In some cases, the Italian troops resisted the Germans, most notably in the Greek island of Cephalonia, where over 5,100 men of the 33rd Acqui Division were executed after running out of ammunition and surrendering; in Rome, after the royal family and the government had fled, a disorganized defense by the Italian troops stationed around the capital was unable to defeat the German attack. In other cases, individual soldiers or whole units, like the 24th Pinerolo Division in Thessaly, went over to the local resistance movements. Only in Sardinia, Corsica, Calabria and in the southern part of Apulia were Italian troops able to offer considerable resistance and hold off the Germans until relieved by the arrival of Allied forces. The operation resulted in the worst Italian defeat ever: casualties, mainly prisoners and disbanded troops, loss of materiel and loss of ground were without precedence in Italian military history.

German plan

The first German combat units were sent to Italy to bolster its defenses against a probable Allied attack on Italian soil, while Germany and Italy were still allies. The decision to create German units in Italy was taken during the final phase of the Tunisian Campaign; on 9 May 1943, two days after the fall of Tunis, the OKW informed the Italian Supreme Command (Comando Supremo) that three new German units would be formed, mostly employing second-line German units evacuated from Africa. These units would be the Sardinia Command (later 90th Light Infantry Division), the Sicily Command (later 15th Infantry Division), and a "ready reserve". Adolf Hitler wrote to a dubious Mussolini that since these were weak units that needed reinforcements, two additional German divisions would be sent from France. The Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring arrived mid-May 1943 and was sent to Sicily, whereas the 16th Panzer Division arrived in early June and was sent west of Bari. On 19 May also the headquarters of general Hans Hube's 14th Panzerkorps was also sent from France, to strengthen the command structure of the Oberbefehlshaber Süd field marshal Albert Kesselring.

On 20 May 1943, during a prolonged discussion at his headquarters, Hitler expressed his doubts about the politic stability of the Fascist government and the danger of a collapse of his Italian ally. A special report by SS-Sonderführer Alexander von Neurath exposed the declining morale of the Italian population and the pro-British sentiment spreading through the high bourgeoisie and the military, and Hitler was convinced that the situation in the Mediterranean needed great attention, and that it was needed to prepare a detailed plan in view of a collapse of Italy or an overthrowing of Mussolini. More reports about a speech delivered by the Italian diplomat Giuseppe Bastianini, information by Himmler's men in Italy, and the presence in Sicily of General Mario Roatta, considered a treacherous person, strengthened the suspects of Hitler and his collaborators.

On 21 May field marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of the OKW, issued the guidelines developed to face the possible defection of Italy from the Axis. The plan envisioned a series of operations in different theaters: Operation Alarich, the invasion of the Italian mainland; Operation Konstantin, the neutralization of the Italian forces in the Balkans; Operation Siegfried, occupation of the Italian-occupied areas in Southern France; Operation Nürnberg, to guard the Franco-Spanish frontier; Operation Kopenhagen, to control the passes on the French-Italian frontier.

Meanwhile, German reserves kept being redeployed to face potential threats in the Mediterranean theater. Hitler, seriously worried about the Balkans, and in conflict with the Italian leadership and Mussolini himself due to the collaboration agreements between the Italian and Chetnik forces, decided to send the 1st Panzer Division in the Peloponnese and even considered the possibility to send to Italy his three elite Waffen-SS armored divisions, currently deployed on the Eastern Front for Operation Citadel.

On 17 June Mussolini, after a partial refusal, urgently asked for two German armoured divisions, as a reinforcement to confront the powerful Allied forces. After more arguments – caused by another change of mind by Mussolini, and by a proposal by General Vittorio Ambrosio, the Chief of Staff of the Italian armed forces, to turn down German reinforcements and move to Italy the Italian troops deployed in France and the Balkans – the ever-deteriorating situation (Pantelleria had surrendered without resistance on 11 June) induced Hitler to send three more German divisions. These were the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division, the 29th Panzergrenadier Division (both newly reconstituted in France after their destruction at Stalingrad) and the 26th Panzer Division. The latter was deployed at Salerno on 9 July, while the 29th Panzergrenadier Division was sent to Foggia mid-June and the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division was deployed north of Rome in the first days of July. Meanwhile, on 24 June, the "Reichsführer-SS"' Brigade had been moved to Corsica, and mid-July the command of the 76th Panzerkorps (General Traugott Herr) also arrived.

Transfer of German forces to Italy

From the invasion of Sicily to the fall of Fascism

On 10 July 1943 the Allied forces launched their invasion of Sicily and soon succeeded in creating solid bridgeheads on the coastline, despite counterattacks by Italian and German forces in the island. The worsening situation immediately had consequences among the political and military leaderships of the two countries: in Rome, pessimism was steadily growing, and Ambrosio suggested Mussolini to ask for unrealistic help by Germany; among the German commands in Italy, Eberhard von Mackensen and Albert Kesselring became increasingly skeptic about the Italian defense capabilities, and asked for reinforcements.

Hitler, more and more worried about an Italian collapse, decided to immediately send to Sicily the 1st Fallschirmjäger-Division and then the command of the 14th Panzerkorps (general Hube) and 29th Panzergrenadier Division, ready for employment in Reggio Calabria; on 17 July it was decided to organize immediately a meeting to verify the attitude by Mussolini and his collaborators, and their resolve to continue the war.

The meeting took place near Feltre on 19 July 1943; on the same day, Rome suffered a heavy bombing by over 500 Allied bombers, which accelerated maneuvers by monarchists, high military officers and even part of the Fascist leadership, more and more concerned with finding a way out of the war. The Feltre meeting had little use; Mussolini, despite pleas by Ambrosio to clearly present the critical situation of Italy and to ask for freedom of action to withdraw from the war, proved to be weak and indecisive and only asked for more German help in the defense of Italy, while Hitler made an exhausting speech in favor of fighting till the end. Moreover, Hitler gave an optimistic view of the situation and refused the exaggerated Italian requests for more land and air support, mentioning technical and operative difficulties; however, he did not either adhere to the vehement requests by Jodl, Keitel and Warlimont, who asked to create an unified command in Italy under German control, to move south (towards the regions attacked by the Allies) the many Italian troops that were in Northern Italy, and to give command of the Axis forces in the theatre to General Wolfram von Richtofen.

After the meeting, Hitler became convinced that he had succeeded in lifting Mussolini’s morale, and therefore, despite warnings by field marshal Erwin Rommel (who had been put in charge of the forces that were being organized in Bavaria for intervention in case of a defection of Italy), who was worried about the fate of the German troops in Sicily and Southern Italy in case of an Italian "betrayal" and interruption of the communication through the Brenner Pass, on 21 July Hitler decided to suspend the planning of "Alarich" and to authorize the dispatch of important German reinforcements to Italy. Right on 25 July, before to learn of the fall of Mussolini, Hitler approved the dispatch of six Heer divisions, including an armored division, and three Waffen-SS divisions, while Rommel and his headquarters (which was being established in Munich) were sent to Thessaloniki to organize a new army group in the Balkans.

German countermeasures after 25 July

Hitler and the German leadership were thus taken by surprise by the fall of Mussolini on 25 July; due to wrong information from the ambassador Hans Georg von Mackensen and by the military attaché von Rintelen, they did not think that the meeting of the Grand Council of Fascism could threaten the Fascist regime, and they instead thought that Mussolini would be able to strengthen collaboration with the Third Reich. The news of the fall of Mussolini and the creation of a military government led by Marshal Pietro Badoglio surprised and enraged Hitler; he immediately understood that, despite assurances by Badoglio and Italian diplomats, the change of regime was a prelude to an Italian defection, which would endanger the German forces fighting in Southern Italy and the entire Wehrmacht presence in Southern Europe.

At first Hitler thought about intervening immediately with the forces already on site to occupy Rome and arrest Badoglio, the king and the members of the new government; however he soon changed mind and, together with Jodl and Rommel (whom had been urgently recalled from Greece) he decided to re-activate the planning of Operation Alarich, to create a detailed plan to react to the Italian defection and swiftly occupy the Italian peninsula, after sending enough reinforcements. Kesselring was told to be ready to the change of sides and to prepare the withdrawal of his forces from Sicily, Sardinia and Southern Italy; new directives were issued, with new operational plans.

In a matter of few days, the "Siegfried", "Konstantin" and "Kopenhagen" plans (ready since May) were confirmed, and new operations were studied: "Schwartz" to capture the Italian government in Rome, "Achse" to capture the Italian fleet, "Eiche" to free Mussolini from captivity, and "Student" to capture Rome. On 28 July, Hitler reviewed the operational planning: the "Konstantin" and "Alarich" plans were combined into a single plan for the occupation of Italy and the Balkans, which was called "Achse". On 5 August, on the advice of Admiral Ruge and because of the strengthening of the Italian defenses of Rome, the "Schwartz" plan was abandoned. Another problem for Hitler and the German leadership came from a lack of detailed information about Mussolini’s fate and the refusal of Victor Emanuel III to meet Hitler, which would have been an occasion for a sudden attack on the new Italian leadership.

While the planning was underway, the Wehrmacht command had begun the transfer of the divisions needed to enact the operations at the moment of the Italian defection. Starting on 27 July, the 2. Fallschirmjäger-Division of General Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke was moved by air from Southern France to the Pratica di Mare Air Base, a move that surprised both the Italian commands and Kesselring, as neither had been warned beforehand. Meanwhile, on 31 July, General Kurt Student (commander of the 11th Airborne Corps, and due to take command of Ramcke's paratroopers) and SS-Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny reached Kesselring in Frascati and illustrated to him the "Schwarz" plan, which was however soon cancelled by Hitler.

Meanwhile, at 12:00 on 26 July Rommel had returned from Thessaloniki to Rastenburg, leaving command of the new Army Group F to Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs, and on 29 July he assumed command in Munich of a fake command, denominated Auffrischungsstab München, to hide the creation of a new army group which on 14 August would be moved to Bologna under the name of Army Group B, and would enact Operation "Achse" in Northern Italy.

At 02:15 on 26 July the 215th Infantry Division was the first German unit to enter Italy, heading for Ligury, while the Panzergrenadier Division Feldherrnhalle and the 715th Infantry Division were deployed to protect the passage through the alpine passes on the French-Italian border. The Italian commands protested and tried to stop the inflow of the divisions with some pretexts, but Kesselring intervened through the Italian Supreme Command on 1 August, and the 305th Division marched on foot first to Genoa and then to La Spezia. Meanwhile, more German units entered Italy: the 76th Infantry Division, on 2 August, heading for Savona; the 94th Infantry Division, on 4 August, heading for Susa and then Alessandria; the 87th Corps headquarters (General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen), which on 11 August established themselves in Acqui and assumed command of the three newly arrived German divisions.

Some conflicts and incidents between the German troops on passage and the Italian commands and units took place also at Brenner Pass; Rommel, worried by the news of a strengthening of the Italian garrison and mining of the mountain passes, sent the Kampfgruppe Feuerstein south, with part of the 26th Panzer Division and the 44th Infantry Division, with orders to say that they had been sent to help Italy against the common enemy. The Italian Supreme Command in Rome and General Gloria, commander of the Italian 26th Corps in Bozen, complained vehemently and threatened an armed reaction, but after Kesselring’s intervention on 1 August the crisis passed and the German units were allowed to proceed; the 44th Infantry Division reached Bozen, assume control of the Brenner Pass and thus ensured the transalpine communications with Germany.

Right after July 25, Hitler had initially decided to immediately send to Italy the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, despite the precarious situation on the Eastern Front. Protests by Field Marshal Von Kluge and further worsening of the situation in the East forced however Hitler to send only the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, without its heavy weapons. This division crossed the Brenner Pass on 3 August and then placed itself between Parma and Reggio Emilia. This was soon followed by the transfer of the 65th Infantry Division from Villach to the Ravenna-Rimini area, and the transfer of the 24th Panzer Division from Tyrol to Modena by 30 August. On 3 August the Waffen-SS Generaloberst Paul Hausser arrived in Reggi Emilia with the headquarters of the 2nd SS-Panzerkorps, to take command of the three incoming divisions.

The last German division to enter Italy was the 71st Infantry Division, which was transferred from Denmark to an area north of Ljubljana on 7 August, and from 25 August started entering Friuli on orders from Rommel, who feared possible hostile actions by the Italians and the mining of the Eastern alpine passes. After another conflict with the Italian Supreme Command, which once again menaced to result in armed clashes, the situation was solved by the intervention of Von Rintelen, and the Division advanced without problems towards Gemona, Gorizia and Opicina; by 2 September it was fully deployed in the Julian March.

8 September 1943

End of an alliance

Right after the removal of Mussolini from power, the new government led by Badoglio had officially proclaimed the decision to continue the war alongside Germany, and kept reassuring the German leadership of its loyalty to the Axis cause, but at the same time it started a series of confused attempts to start secret negotiations with the Allies, to get out of the war and to avoid the consequences of a sudden change of sides. The need to gain time induced the new Italian government to make a show of loyalty to the alliance, asking for a more active participation of the German ally in the defense of the Italian peninsula and thus for the arrival of more German divisions, which however worsened the German threat on Italy.

The Italian leadership tried to keep a grip on this difficult phase by alternating requests for help and obstructionism towards the incoming German forces, and asking to deploy the German divisions in the South, on the frontline; already on 31 July, during the meeting between Ambrosio and Kesselring, arguments began about the positioning and role of the new German divisions. At the conference held in Tarvisio on 6 August between the Italian Foreign Minister Raffaele Guariglia, Ambrosio, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Keitel (with the menacing presence of SS guards), the mutual distrust became apparent; Ambrosio asked to increase the German divisions from nine to sixteen, but to deploy them in Southern Italy against the Allies, while Keitel and Warlimont instead stated that the new German units would be deployed in Central and Northern Italy, as a strategic reserve force.

A last meeting was held in Bologna on 15 August, between generals Roatta and Jodl, the latter accompanied by Rommel (who had just been made commander of the new Army Group B in Northern Italy) and by a SS guard of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler; the Germans consented to recalling to Italy part of the Italian 4th Army from Southern France, but they were alarmed by Roatta's plans about a positioning of the German forces that, in case of defection, seemed to expose them to the risk of becoming isolated and being destroyed by the Allied forces. The meeting was a failure and convinced the German generals that, despite reassurances from Roatta (possibly not yet informed by Ambrosio of the contacts that were underway with the Allies), who assured that Italy would not defect and added "we are not Saxons!", that an Italian defection was imminent. The atmosphere at the meeting was so tense that the German delegation refused food and beverages offered by the Italians, fearing they would be poisoned.

The preparations against an Italian "betrayal" therefore proceeded swiftly; detailed dispositions were issued to the subordinated commands, which in turn studied detailed operative plans to act with speed and efficiency. The German leadership only expected a weak resistance by the Italian armed forces, and counted on quickly solving the situation. General Von Horstig, a representative of the weaponry office of the Wehrmacht in Italy, was already preparing plans for the plunder of the resources and the systematic destruction of factories and infrastructures of military importance in Southern Italy. At the end of August, Hitler sent to Italy his new representatives: the diplomat Rudolf Rahn (who replaced the ambassador Von Mackensen) and General Rudolf Toussaint, who replaced Von Rintelen as military attaché.

Kesselring had already authorized General Hans Hube (in command of the 14th Panzerkorps), on orders from OKW, to organize the whitdrawal of his four divisions from Sicily and its redeployment in Calabria, which Hube skillfully carried out on 17 August (Operation Lehrgang). The vast majority of the German troops in Sicily, after an effective fighting retreat, managed to cross the Straits of Messina and even to save a great part of the heavy equipment. In the following days Hube deployed the 14th Panzerkorps (16th Panzer Division, 15th Panzergrenadier Division, and Hermann Goring Division) in the area between Naples and Salerno, while the 1st Parachutist Division was sent to Abulia and General Herr with the 76th Panzerkorps assumed the defense of Calabria with part of the 26th Panzer Division and the 29th Panzergrenadier Division; his orders were to carry out delaying actions in case of Allied attack across the straits.

On 3 September, indeed, XIII Corps of the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Law Montgomery crossed the straits northwest of Reggio Calabria (Operation Baytown), landed without meeting much resistance and started a cautious advance along the coastal roads towards Pizzo Calabro and Crotone. The 76th Panzerkorps avoided engagement and slowly retreated northwards.

The armistice

After some unrealistic and fruitless attempts by personalities of minor importance (embassy official Blasco Lanza D'Ajeta, Foreign Ministry official Alberto Berio, industrialist Alberto Pirelli) to contact the Allies and start negotiations for an exit of Italy from the war, possibly avoiding the dangerous consequences of a surrender at discretion and a German occupation, on 12 August General Giuseppe Castellano, Ambrosio's counselor, left Rome for Madrid, where he met the British ambassador Sir Samuel Hoare. The latter informed Churchill and then directed Castellano to Lisbon where, on 17 August, the first meeting with the Allied emissaries, General Walter Bedell Smith and politic advisers Kenneth Strong and George Frost Kennan, took place. The Allies demands, definitely established by the Allied governments at the end of July, called for a completely unconditional surrender; Castellano thus found himself in great hindrance, as the instructions Badoglio had given him required to bargain the exit of Italy from the war and a strong military collaboration with the Allies, including the intervention of as many as fifteen British and American divisions that were to make contemporary landings north and south of Rome simultaneously with the announcement of the armistice, in order to defend the capital and deal with the German reaction. During a new meeting between Castellano and Bedell Smith in Cassibile, Sicily, on 31 August, the Italian envoy unsuccessfully insisted again to be made apart of the Allied operative details; the intervention of an American airborne division to protect Rome and the Italian government (Operation Giant 2) was agreed. On 1 September, after a consultation between the king, Guariglia and Ambrosio, the Allies were radioed the reception of the conditions of the armistice.

On 3 September, Castellano and Bedell Smith therefore signed the armistice of Cassibile, in presence of the representatives of the British and American governments, Harold Macmillan and Robert Daniel Murphy; there was however a grievous mistake about the timing of the announcement of the Italian surrender. The Badoglio government hoped to gain more time to organize the resistance against the German forces, delaying the announcement at least till 12 September. Only in the night of 8 September did Badoglio learn from General Maxwell Taylor (the second-in-command of the 82nd Airborne Division, whose intervention was planned for "Giant 2", who had been secretly sent to Rome) that General Dwight Eisenhower would make the announcement that very evening. Badoglio protested and vainly tried to obtain another delay; the Italian leaders and generals, extremely worried about the German reaction, made an awful impression on General Taylor, who advised the Allied command to give up Operation "Giant 2", which he deemed to be destined to fail, given the disorganization of the sizable Italian forces stationed around Rome.

In the morning of 8 September, Allied bombers bombed Kesselring’s headquarters in Frascati. While they failed their objective and caused heavy civilian casualties, the Allied fleets approached the Gulf of Salerno to launch Operation Avalanche (the main landing of the 5th American Army of General Mark Wayne Clark). Badoglio, more and more anxious, sent Eisenhower a telegram asking for a deferment of the announcement of the armistice. The Allied commander-in-chief, sustained by an order from Washington of the Allied heads of state, firmly rejected the request, confirmed his intentions in a threatening tone, and cancelled Operation "Giant 2".

At 18:00 on 8 September a hurried and dramatic Council of the Crown was held at the Quirinale Palace; the king, Badoglio, Ambrosio, Guariglia, General Giacomo Carboni (head of the Military Intelligence Service and commander of the Corpo d'Armata Motocorazzato tasked with defending the capital), General Antonio Sorice (War Minister), Admiral Raffaele De Courten (Minister of the Navy), General Renato Sandulli (Minister of the Air Force), General Paolo Puntoni, General Giuseppe De Stefanis, and Major Luigi Marchesi (secretary of Ambrosio) participated. Faced with the clear instructions transmitted by Eisenhower and the first indiscretions leaking on foreign radios about the armistice, the Italian leadership, after heated discussions where Carboni went as far as to propose that they retracted Castellano’s actions, finally agreed with Marchesi, who said that they should unavoidably keep the word they had given to the Allies, and confirm the news. At 18:30 general Eisenhower, speaking on Radio Algiers, officially announced the armistice, and at 19:42 Badoglio gave in turn the announcement from the EIAR. During the previous days, the German representatives in Rome had been given reiterated statements of loyalty to the alliance, expressed at the highest levels; on 3 September Badoglio himself had confirmed to Rahn his firm will to remain at the side of Germany, and still on 6 September General Toussaint thought that the Italians had rejected the harsh demands of the Allies. Even in the morning of 8 September, Rahn met the king and the latter reassured him about his decision not to surrender, and in the afternoon Roatta reaffirmed by telephone that news coming from abroad were a propagandist hoax. Rahn was thus taken by surprise when at 19:00 on 8 September, having been warned by Berlin about the news of the armistice, he met Guariglia whom immediately confirmed the news and told him about the exit of Italy from the war and from the Axis alliance. Rahn replied bitterly, then hastily left Rome along with Toussaint and the embassy personnel and went to Frascati, where Kesselring’s headquarters were located.

Despite the initial surprise, the German response, having been accurately planned and organized in detail, was swift and effective; Hitler, who at 17:00 came back to Rastenburg after spending a few days in Ukraine at the headquarters of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, soon learned of the armistice from a BBC trasmission, and acted with extreme resolve. At 19:50, a few minutes after Badoglio had finished his announcement, the aide of General Jodl broadcast the coded word "Achse" to all subordinated commands; it was the signal for the German forces to attack Italian forces in all the war theaters of the Mediterranean.

Dissolution of Italian forces in Italy

Uncertainty and confusion

The Italian high commands, in the weeks leading to the armistice, had issued instructions for commanders and troops about the behaviour that should have been held in case of a withdrawal from the war and possible German aggressions; these orders were the No. 111 Order issued by the Staff of the Italian Army on 10 August, the OP 44 Memorandum issued on 26 August by General Roatta (on Ambrosio’s orders) to the major peripheral commands (only twelve copies), and the No. 1 and No. 2 Memorandums issued on 6 September by the Supreme Command to the Staffs of the three armed forces, containing indications about the deployment of the forces in the different theaters.

These were however general guidelines, lacking details and nearly inapplicable (also due to excessive secrecy measures); they were ineffective and they contributed, along with the vagueness of Badoglio’s message on the evening of 8 September, to confuse the peripheral commands of the Italian forces about the unexpected news of the change of sides and the aggressiveness of the German forces, thus resulting in insecurity and indecision among those commands. The situation of the Italian armed forces was worsened by the contradictory instructions issued by Ambrosio in the evening of 8 September, which restricted any initiative to mere defensive measures in case of German attacks, and by Roatta in the night of 9 September, who especially demanded to avoid turmoil and ‘seditions’ among the troops.

Faced with the cold efficiency of the German units, which immediately showed harsh aggressiveness and demanded surrender or collaboration with threats and intimidations, most of the Italian commanders, also fearful of the impressive reputation of military capacity of the Wehrmacht, soon abandoned any intent of resistance, with a few exceptions; the troops, left with neither orders nor leaders, often dispersed.

The situation of the German forces in Italy was actually a difficult one; Rommel, with his Army Group B, had the easier task of occupying the northern regions and neutralizing any resistance by Italian forces in that area, but Kesselring, in command of Army Group C, was in great difficulty after September 8: after the bombing of Frascati, he barely managed to receive the communication of the coded word "Achse" and also learned of the Allied landing near Salerno, where only part of the 16th Panzer Division was stationed. At first, he feared that he would not be able to simultaneously contain the Allied advance and carry out his mission against Rome.

Even the OKW considered the possibility of the loss of the eight German divisions in Southern Italy; Kesselring, however, showed great capability, and his forces fought with ability and effectiveness. Despite advice by Rommel to quickly withdraw from Southern Italy and retreat to the La Spezia-Rimini line, Kesselring managed to avoid the isolation and destruction of his forces and also to cause trouble to the Allied bridgehead at Salerno, to counterattack with some success (after massing there the 14th and 76th Panzerkorps, with three Panzer divisions and two Panzergrenadier divisions) and then to retreat with minimal losses north of Naples, while simultaneously carrying out the "Achse" plan and capturing Rome with part of his forces.

Fall of Rome

In order to defend the political and military leadership and to resist to a possible German attack, the Italian commands had concentrated a considerable amount of troops in the area around Rome; the main force consisted in the Corpo d'Armata Motocorazzato of General Carboni, composed of the 135th Armoured Division "Ariete II", the 136th Armoured Division Centauro II, the 10th Motorised Division Piave and the 21st Infantry Division Granatieri di Sardegna. Other units tasked with the defense of Rome were the 103rd Motorised Division Piacenza (part of the 17th Corps of General Giovanni Zangheri), the 12th Infantry Division Sassari and some battalions of the 13th Infantry Division Re and 7th Infantry Division Lupi di Toscana; overall, there were about 55,000 men and 200 armored fighting vehicles, with a numerical superiority on the German forces in the area. The German forces near Rome consisted in the 11th Airborne Corps of General Kurt Student, headquartered in Pratica di Mare; the Corps comprised the 2nd Parachutist Division (General Walter Barenthin), ready for action south of Rome, and the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division (General Fritz-Hubert Gräser), reinforced by an armored battalion of the 26th Panzer Division (Kampfgruppe Büsing), stationed between Orvieto and Lake Bolsena, north of Rome. These units comprised about 26,000 men and some hundreds armored fighting vehicles, and were activated by Kesselring in the evening of 8 September: already at 20:30 they attacked the Mezzocamino fuel depot, and the German paratroopers immediately started advancing south, overcoming sporadic resistance by the Piacenza Division in Lanuvio, Albano Laziale and Ardea.

After reaching the EUR district at 21:30, the 2nd Parachutist Division overpowered some units of the Piacenza and Granatieri di Sardegna Divisions and after half an hour, advancing along the Via Ostiensis, reached the Magliana bridge. Meanwhile, the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division advanced from north along the Via Aurelia, Via Cassia and Via Flaminia, but was halted near Lake Bracciano by the Armored Division Ariete II (General Raffaele Cadorna) and suspended its advance after some negotiations. The paratroopers, instead, went ahead with their action; fierce fighting erupted at Magliana between the German forces and the Granatieri di Sardegna, supported by armored units of the Ariete II Division, but at 02:00 on 9 September the Ciampino airport was captured, and an hour later news came that German troops ha arrived in Tor Sapienza, along Via Prenestina, just eight km away from the city center.

More and more alarming news pushed the political and military leadership, after some uncertain orders by Ambrosio to try to contact Kesselring, to decide do abandon the city. Roatta exhorted the king and Badoglio to leave Rome by the Via Tiburtina, then he ordered his forces to try to retreat to Tivoli and finally he abandoned the city himself, leaving Carboni without any order. Carboni in turn fled in civilian clothes, then re-entered the city in the morning of 10 September, when the situation was definitely compromised. General Umberto Utili, head of the Operations Division of the General Staff, declared the General Staff as formally dissolved in the morning of 9 September; the subordinate commands and the troops showed signs of bewilderment and confusion.

Meanwhile, at 5:10 on 9 September the king and Badoglio, along with high-ranking officers, dignitaries and family members, fled Rome on seven cars; without encountering any difficulties, they passed Tivoli and Avezzano and reached Pescara and later Ortona, where more fleeing officers had gathered. There the king, his relatives, Badoglio, Ambrosio and Roatta boarded the corvette Baionetta, which reached Brindisi at 14:30 on 10 September, the city having already been reached by Allied troops which had safely landed in Italian-controlled Taranto (the 1st British Parachutist Division), Brindisi and Bari (two divisions of the 5th Corps) during Operation Slapstick.

Meanwhile, the defenses of Rome had completely collapsed; in the south, the German paratroopers fought a series of sporadic fights against the Granatieri di Sardegna and units of the Ariete II at Magliana and Cecchignola; at 17:00 on 9 September, Magliana was abandoned by Italian forces and the 2nd Parachutist Division proceeded with its advance, arriving near Porta San Paolo in the evening. In the north, the AFVs of the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division had restarted their advance; after fighting against the bulk of the Ariete II, they captured Manziana, Monterosi (at 14:00) and Bracciano (at 17:00), while more German units of the same Division advanced towards Civitavecchia and kampfgruppe Büsing reached Cesano and La Storta.

At 20:00 the Piave and Ariete II divisions, as they had been ordered, left their positions and retreated towards Tivoli, while units of the Sassari and Re divisions were deployed along the Via Cassia and Via Salaria. The parachutists of Major Walter Gericke, whom had been parachuted at 09:00 over Monterotondo with the task of capturing the Italian Army headquarters (which however had already been abandoned), were engaged in hard fighting, which they ended in success in the evening of 9 September; meanwhile, units of the 2nd Parachutist Division attacked Porta San Paolo, two kilometers from Piazza Venezia, held by Granatieri di Sardegna units and groups of civilian volunteers. The German troops, mainly consisting in veterans, overcame this resistance after some fierce fighting, and reached the center of Rome in the morning of 10 September. General Siegfried Westphal, Chief of Staff of Army Group C, had started negotiations with Colonel Giaccone of the Centauro II Armoured Division (the former "M" Armoured Division, composed of blackshirts whose allegiances were highly doubtful, which had led the Italian commands to decide to keep it away from the battle), on instructions from Kesselring and Student, in the evening of 9 September. After a series of threats and an ultimatum, Westphal obtained the capitulation of Rome by the afternoon of 10 September, after discussions with Generals Carboni and Sorice and Marshal Enrico Caviglia, while German artillery was already firing directly inside the city. Westphal promised to spare the city and authorized the creation of a provisional Italian command under General Giorgio Calvi di Bergolo.

This evanescent agreement was soon revoked by the Germans; by 15 September all Italian troops were disarmed, on 23 September Calvi di Bergolo was arrested and the German and RSI forces, under Generals Stahel and Chieli, respectively, assume control of the city, despite they stated that the status of "open city" was maintained. This status was never recognized by the Allies, and the Germans exploited it to use Rome as a key logistic junction for the supplies sent to the frontline.

Meanwhile, the Italian units that had retreated towards Tivoli dissolved; a considerable part of the Sassari and Piacenza divisions and of the 211th Coastal Division escaped capture and crossed the frontline, thus joining the Allies, but most of the men of the ten Italian divisions in the area were disarmed. Only a small part of them, however, were interned or deported; the majority was allowed to return to their homes. Overall German casualties for the capture of Rome were about a hundred dead and about 500 wounded, while Italian casualties were 984 killed, of whom 659 were soldiers, 121 civilians and 204 "unidentified".

Disintegration of Italian forces in southern Italy

Field Marshal Kesselring, despite being busy with avoiding the isolation of his forces and containing the Allied attacks launched in three different landing areas (Salerno, Abulia and Calabria), still managed to retain control of the situation and to carry out the tasks assigned within the "Achse" plan. He managed to quickly dissolve the Italian forces stationed in his area, to capture Rome and to disengage mobile units that were to be sent south against the Allies (the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division, after capturing Rome, reached Salerno on 12 September), but he had to restrict himself to summarily disarming the majority of the captured soldiers, then sending them back to their homes. Only 24,294 of the 102,340 Italian soldiers captured by Army Group C were held captive.

Italian forces in Campania were weak and were quickly overwhelmed by the German troops; the Naples garrison was destroyed after two days of resistance by a German armored column, and its commander, Colonel Olivier, was executed. The 19th Corps was dissolved on 11 September after its commander, General Del Tetto, abandoned his command post to take shelter in a monastery; the 9th Motorised Division Pasubio (stationed in the Naples area), which was still being re-formed after its near destruction on the Eastern Front, was immediately disarmed, while in the Salerno area the 222nd Coastal Division was attacked and dispersed by the 16th Panzer Division, and its commander, General Ferrante Vincenzo Gonzaga, was killed after refusing to surrender.

The 7th Italian Army of General Mario Arisio was stationed in Calabria, Basilicata and Abulia; German forces in these regions were scarce, and were being moved north. On 9 September, the 7th Army headquarters in Potenza were attacked by surprise and captured by German troops, but the overall weakness of the German forces and the swift intervention of the Allied forces helped the Italian units, the majority of whom maintained unit cohesion. The 9th Corps (General Roberto Lerici) held central and northern Abulia, despite the collapse of the 209th Coastal Division; General Nicola Bellomo held the harbour of Bari until Allied forces arrived, while more south the 51st Corps of General De Stefani held its positions between Grottaglie and Lecce with the 58th Infantry Division Legnano, the 152nd Infantry Division Piceno and the 210th Coastal Division. The situation of the 31st Corps (General Mercalli), stationed in Calabria with three coastal divisions and the 104th Motorised Division Mantova, was more difficult: it was attacked by the 76th Panzerkorps and sustained casualties, and part of the 185th Parachute Regiment decided to remain loyal to the previous alliance with Germany and joined the 1st German Parachute Division.

General Frido von Senger und Etterlin, the German commander in Sardinia, was ordered by Kesselring to withdraw to Corsica with the 90th Panzergrenadier Division. This manoeuvre was a complete success; the Italian forces present in the area (consisting of the 184th Airborne Division Nembo, the 31st Infantry Division Calabria, the 30th Infantry Division Sabauda, the 47th Infantry Division Bari, the 203rd Coastal Division, the 204th Coastal Division and the 205th Coastal Division), under General Antonio Basso, lacked mobility and did not go into action until 12 September; due to previous agreements made with the German commands, they did not impede the transfer of the German forces to Corsica, which was completed by 18 September with a few wounded caused by a skirmish near Oristano. A battalion of the Nembo Division, which had reacted negatively to the news of the armistice, mutinied, killed the divisional chief of staff, Colonel Alberto Bechi Lucerna, and joined the 90th Panzergrenadier Division.

In Corsica, after initial confusion and fruitless negotiations, General Giovanni Magli, commander of the 7th Corps (20th Infantry Division Friuli and 44th Infantry Division Cremona), attacked the Waffen-SS "Reichführer-SS" brigade, while some French units landed at Ajaccio on 12 September. On 13 September, following the arrival of the 90th Panzergrenadier Division from Sardinia, Bastia (where a previous German attempt to capture the port and Italian shipping had been thwarted by Italian ships) fell in German hands, but the Wehrmacht Supreme Command ordered General Von Senger to leave the island and withdraw to Piombino. The German forces were evacuated from Corsica by 4 October, despite attacks by the Italian and French forces (the latter consisting of the 4th Moroccan Mountain Division).

On 12 September, paratrooper units under Major Harald Mors, which also included the SS officer Otto Skorzeny (who had located the different prisons where Mussolini had been held), carried out Operation "Eiche" and freed Mussolini from detention in Campo Imperatore, Gran Sasso; this was an essential premise for the creation of a new fascist collaborationist government wanted by Hitler.

Disintegration of Italian forces in central and northern Italy

The strategic situation in central and northern Italy was much more favorable to the Germans than in the south. Army Group B, under Field Marshal Rommel, had a considerable number of troops, was far away from possible Allied intervention, and its units were deployed so as to be ready to intervene against Italian units, which were much less prepared and lacked clear orders. Moreover, the behavior of many of the Italian commanders further favored the success of the "Achse" plan: the local Italian superior commands, mostly concerned with avoiding riots, devastation, and popular insurrections, refused the help of civilians in the resistance, sometimes autonomously dissolved their units, and started negotiations with the Germans for an uneventful handover. Even the civilian leadership of the major cities carried out the instructions of the chief of police, Carmine Senise, mostly aimed at avoiding riots, and thus collaborated with the German authorities. Under such circumstances, Rommel carried out his task with speed and efficiency, while many Italian units quickly disintegrated and offered little resistance; Army Group B strictly carried out the orders about the internment of Italian troops, and by 20 September, 183,300 of the 13,000 officers and 402,000 soldiers captured had already been sent to Germany.

German units in Piedmont quickly neutralized the Italian units; in Turin (where General Enrico Adami Rossi refused to arm the civilians – on 18 August, he had ordered his men to fire on the crowd during a popular demonstration – and immediately initiated negotiations) and Novara (where General Casentino surrendered his entire command) the high commands did not attempt any resistance, immediately handed over their weapons and surrendered with their disintegrating units; Adami Rossi surrendered as soon as German armored units entered Turin (he later joined the Italian Social Republic). In Ligury, by 11 September the German troops of the 87th Corps (76th and 94th Infantry Division) and the 51st Corps (65th and 305th Infantry Division) occupied all positions, while the 16th Italian Corps (105th Motorised Division Rovigo and 6th Alpine Division Alpi Graie) dissolved; German units also entered the naval base of La Spezia, but the Italian fleet had already sailed, while ships unable to sail had been scuttled or sabotaged.

In Milan, General Vittorio Ruggero, commander of the garrison, bought time for 48 hours and then reached an agreement with a German colonel of the 1st SS Panzer Division "Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler"; Ruggero dissolved without a fight the 5th Infantry Division Cosseria, which was being re-formed after the heavy losses suffered in Russia, and already on the following day the Waffen-SS units broke the agreement, occupied Milan and arrested Ruggero, who was sent to POW camps in Germany along with his soldiers. After a brief resistance, the garrison of Verona and its commander, General Guglielmo Orengo, were disarmed and deported by the German forces.

Despite the Alpine Wall fortifications, Italian units quickly disintegrated also in Trentino-South Tyrol: by 9 September, the two alpine divisions of the 35th Corps of General Alessandro Gloria (2nd Alpine Division Tridentina and 4th Alpine Division Cuneense, but under re-constitution after their destruction on the Eastern Front) were immediately attacked and disarmed by the 44th German Infantry Division, which was already deployed south of Brenner Pass, and by the "Doelha" Brigade; only in Rovereto did some units resist until the morning of 10 September, before surrendering. In Emilia, the 2nd SS-Panzerkorps of General Paul Hausser occupied the territory and destroyed the weak Italian units in the area without difficulty: the 24th Panzer Division and "Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler" quickly entered Modena and Bologna; the 3rd Cavalry Division Amedeo Duca d'Aosta, which was being re-formed after the losses suffered in Russia, was disarmed, and the soldiers taken prisoner.

The 71th German Infantry Division encountered more difficulty in occupying Friuli and the Julian March; whereas the 3rd Alpine Division Julia and the 2nd Mountain Infantry Division Sforzesca, both being re-formed after their destruction in Russia, were soon disarmed, the 52nd Motorised Division Torino put up resistance in Gorizia, where workers formed the first partisan groups. Meanwhile, Slovene partisan formations invaded part of this region, where they often inflicted bloody reprisals against the Italian civilian population. Only towards the end of the month, the 71th German Infantry Division, assisted by Italian collaborationist soldiers of the Italian Social Republic, regained control of the situation, repelled the Yugoslav partisans and occupied all the territory. In Trieste, General Alberto Ferrero, after fruitless talks with anti-fascist representatives, started negotiations with the Germans and then abandoned the city, and 90,000 Italian soldiers in the area, abandoned without orders, surrendered without a fight.

In central Italy north of Rome, the 5th Italian Army of General Mario Caracciolo di Feroleto, headquartered in Orte, was dissolved on 11 September, and its soldiers were disarmed and interned; the 3rd Mountain Infantry Division Ravenna, headquartered in Grosseto, and the coastal formations of the northern Tyrrhenian Sea disintegrated, and German units entered the cities; Livorno was captured on 10 September. In Florence, General Chiappa Armellini immediately allowed the Germans to enter the city; Colonel Chiari in Arezzo and Colonel Laurei in Massa gave up their forces without attempting any resistance. Italian units and civilian volunteers in Piombino repelled a German landing attempt between 10 and 11 September, killing or capturing some hundreds of German soldiers, but on 12 September the Italian superior commands surrendered the town to the Germans.

Army Group B completed its task by 19 September, occupying all of central and northern Italy, disarming and capturing a great part of the Italian troops and sizable booty, that included 236 armored fighting vehicles, 1,138 field guns, 536 anti-tank guns, 797 anti-aircraft guns, 5,926 machine guns and 386,000 rifles. Along with 13,000 officers and 402,000 Italian soldiers, 43,000 Allied prisoners, previously held by the Italians, were also captured. Rommel organized a quick transfer to Germany of the captured Italian soldiers, which were sent through the Brenner Pass, partly by train, partly on foot.

Disintegration of Italian forces abroad


The 4th Italian Army of General Mario Vercellino, consisting of the 5th Alpine Division Pusteria, the 2nd Cavalry Division Emanuele Filiberto Testa di Ferro and the 48th Infantry Division Taro, was on its way from Provence to Italy when news of the armistice came; panic immediately spread among the troops, and rumors about the aggressiveness and brutality of the German troops caused demoralization and disintegration of the units towards the border. The army, dispersed between France, Piedmont and Ligury, disintegrated between 9 and 11 September, under the pressure of the converging German forces of Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt (from Provence) and Rommel (from Italy).

Taking advantage of the disintegration of the Italian units, the German troops swiftly captured all positions: the 356th and 715th Infantry Division entered Toulon and reached the Varo river, while the Panzergrenadier Division Feldherrnhalle occupied the riviera till Menton. Mont Cenis pass, held by Italian units, was attacked in a pincer movement by German units from France (units of the 157th and 715th Infantry Division) and Piedmont (units of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, coming from Turin); the Italian garrison defended the pass for some time, then surrendered after blowing up part of the Fréjus Rail Tunnel. Most soldiers of the 4th Army dispersed and tried to reach their homes; some others decided to remain with the Germans, whereas sizeable groups chose to oppose the occupation and went on the mountains, where they joined groups of anti-fascist civilians and thus formed the first partisan groups in Piedmont. On 12 September, General Vercellino formally dissolved his Army, while General Operti secured the Army treasure, part of which would later be used to fund the resistance.


Italian forces in the Balkans (Slovenia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania and Greece) amounted to over 30 divisions and 500,000 soldiers, who had been engaged for two years in wearing counterguerrilla operations against Yugoslav and Greek partisans. Italian forces in the area consisted of the 2nd Army (General Mario Robotti) in Slovenia and Dalmatia, of the 9th Army (General Lorenzo Dalmazzo), stationed in Albania and under the control of Army Group East of General Ezio Rosi (which also included the troops in Bosnia and Montenegro), and of the 11th Army (General Vecchierelli) in Greece, the latter under Army Group E of General Alexander Löhr.

Italian troops in the area were exhausted after years of wearing anti-partisan operations, characterized by brutalities, reprisals and repression, and were isolated in a hostile territory, mixed with numerous German divisions (over 20 divisions of Army Group F of Field Marshal Von Weichs, and of Army Group E of General Löhr) and Croat collaborationist units whom, on 9 September, immediately severed all ties with Italy and joined Germany in the fight against the former ally. Without any land connection, and with confusing and vague orders, units quickly disintegrated and many soldiers were disarmed, captured and deported to Germany. However, Italian soldiers in this area fought with more determination than the units left in Italy, suffering heavy casualties and harsh reprisals by the German units.

Some units managed to escape capture and joined Yugoslav or Greek partisan formations, subsequently fighting alongside them; the population was often friendly towards the soldiers, and helped them. German forces, less numerous but more mobile, determined and well-led, and enjoying complete air supremacy, quickly prevailed, brutally crushing Italian resistance, often summarily executing Italian officers, and occupying all the Balkan region; 393,000 Italian soldiers were captured and deported, about 29,000 joined the Germans, 20,000 joined Partisan formations, and 57,000 dispersed or hid and tried to survive.

The 5th, 11th and 18th Corps which formed the 2nd Army, stationed in Slovenia, Croatia and Dalmatia, were attacked by two Croat and three German divisions; General Gastone Gambara, commander of the 11th Corps, started negotiations in Fiume and then abandoned his troops on 14 September, leaving them to be captured; Pola also fell without resistance. On 11 September the divisions stationed in Dalmatia were ordered to avoid any resistance in the hope of a peaceful repatriation, but the subordinate units refused, and started fighting against the Germans. The 14th Infantry Division Isonzo, 22nd Infantry Division Cacciatori delle Alpi and 153rd Infantry Division Macerata were dissolved, whereas the 57th Infantry Division Lombardia and the 154th Infantry Division Murge resisted in Susak and Karlovac; the 158th Infantry Division Zara surrendered on 10 September and its commanders were deported, while in Split the 15th Infantry Division Bergamo made an agreement with Yugoslav partisans and defended the town till 27 September against the 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen, sent from Mostar; after surrender, three Italian generals (Alfonso Cigala Fulgosi, Raffaele Pelligra and Angelo Policardi) and 46 officers were executed. The 1st Cavalry Division Eugenio di Savoia, stationed in Dalmatia, was dispersed.

Italian forces in Albania consisted of the six divisions of the 9th Army (General Dalmazzo); the headquarters of Army Group East (General Rosi) was in Tirana. Left without clear orders, Italian commanders showed indecision and insufficient fighting spirit; on the contrary, German forces (Superior Command "Kroazia" with two chasseurs divisions, one mountain division and the 1st Panzer Division) acted swiftly and with great aggressiveness. In the morning of 11 September, the command of Army Group East was surrounded and General Rosi was immediately captured along with his officers, while General Dalmazzo did not react to the German attacks, did not issue any order of resistance and started negotiations with the Germans, hastening the disintegration of his forces.

The 11th Infantry Division Brennero (whose commander, General Princivalle, kept an ambivalent behavior), 38th Infantry Division Puglie, 49th Infantry Division Parma and 53rd Infantry Division Arezzo handed over their weapons and were dissolved (most men of the Brennero Division however managed to return to Italy by sea, while a considerable part of the men of the Arezzo Division escaped and joined the partisans), while the 41st Infantry Division Firenze (General Arnaldo Azzi) and the 151st Infantry Division Perugia (General Ernesto Chiminello) tried to resist. The Firenze Division faced the Germans in battle but was defeated near Kruja, after which the Division was dissolved and its men joined the partisan formations; the Perugia Division retreated to Porto Edda after a fighting retreat and some of its men managed to embark on ships headed for Italy, but most of the division, weakened by the exhausting march through the Albanian mountains and the continuous attacks, was surrounded and surrendered on 22 September, after which General Chiminello and 130 officers were executed. Some survivors joined the partisans, forming the Antonio Gramsci Battalion. Over 15,000 dispersed Italian soldiers were sheltered by the population; the 21st German Mountain Corps established its headquarters in Tirana already on 10 September.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the 18th Infantry Division Messina resisted for four days, while the 32nd Infantry Division Marche tried to defend Dubrovnik, but the German forces crushed its resistance; the commander of the Division, General Giuseppe Amico, was captured by the Germans during a parley and released to convince his men to surrender, but he instead rallied them against the Germans. Recaptured later, he was executed. In Montenegro, the 23rd Infantry Division Ferrara disintegrated, while the 155th Infantry Division Emilia defended the Bay of Kotor till 16 September, then it had to surrender; the soldiers of the 19th Infantry Division Venezia and of the 1st Alpine Division Taurinense joined Tito's partisans and formed the "Garibaldi" partisan Division, which kept fighting against the Germans, despite some violent "incomprehensions" with the Yugoslavs, till March 1945.

In mainland Greece, as elsewhere, uncertainty and ambivalent behavior of the Italian superior officers favored a rapid German success; Italian forces in this region, consisting of the 11th Army with headquarters in Athens, were subordinate to Army Group E of General Löhr, whom had numerically inferior but more efficient units (three chasseurs divisions, part of the 1st Panzer Division and a Luftwaffe field division). General Carlo Vecchierelli, commander of the 11th Army, issued at first an order dictating that no initiatives where to be taken against the Germans, and on 9 September, believing the German assurances of safe-conducts to return to Italy, he ordered his troops to avoid any resistance and hand over the weapons to the Germans, without fighting.

The consequence was the disintegration of most of the units: the 29th Infantry Division Piemonte, 36th Mountain Infantry Division Forlì, 37th Mountain Infantry Division Modena, 56th Infantry Division Casale and 59th Mountain Infantry Division Cagliari were easily disarmed and their soldiers were captured and sent to Germany. The 24th Infantry Division Pinerolo, stationed in Thessalia, rejected Vecchiarelli's orders; General Adolfo Infante, after fighting in Larissa, retreated to the Pindus massif, where he tried to obtain collaboration of the ELAS partisans. At first the Greek partisans agreed, but then they attacked the Italians to capture their weapons; Infante left for Italy, and his men partly dispersed among the local population, partly were imprisoned.

Ionian Islands and the Dodecanese

German commands believed that it would be of great importance to retain control of the Ionian Islands and the Dodecanese, garrisoned by Italian troops, as they were believed to be of great strategic importance as a peripheral naval and air base and a defensive stronghold against possible Allied attacks on the Balkan front. Therefore, German forces launched a series of operations aimed at capturing the most important of these islands, with a sizable concentration of land and air forces. These operations caused some bloody battles against the Italian garrisons (who tried to resist, relying on their numerical superiority, geographical isolation and in some cases Allied assistance) and atrocities after surrender.

The Allied commands, despite insistence from Winston Churchill who supported a powerful Allied intervention in these islands to support the Italian garrisons and to secure valuable naval and air bases (which would turn useful for attacks on the southern Balkan front of "Fortress Europe"), only sent weak contingents with scarce air support, and were thus unable to change the course of the events, which progressively turned in favor of the Wehrmacht.

In Crete, the 51st Infantry Division Siena was immediately neutralized and disarmed by the German forces in the island (the "Kreta" fortress brigade and the 22nd Air Landing Division, a veteran of the German invasion of the Netherlands and of the Siege of Sebastopol); part of the Italian soldiers joined the Germans, whereas most of them were imprisoned and transferred to mainland Greece by sea, but at least 4,700 of them drowned in the sinking of two of the ships that were carrying them (Sinfra and Petrella). Rhodes also quickly fell to the Germans; Italian forces there (the 50th Infantry Division Regina and part of the 6th Infantry Division Cuneo, with 34,000 men), enjoyed numerical superiority over the German forces of General Kleeman (7,000 men of the "Rhodos" Division), but after an inconclusive battle the Italian commander, Admiral Inigo Campioni, surrendered when the Germans threatened to launch heavy bombings against the town of Rhodes. Karpathos was occupied by German forces on 13 September, after Campioni had ordered the island garrison to surrender. Over 6,500 Italian soldiers of the Rhodes garrison died after surrender, most of them in the sinking of the steamers Oria and Donizetti that were carrying them to mainland Greece; Campioni was later executed by Fascist authorities for having defended the island.

British units landed in Leros and Kos, where they joined the Italian garrisons in contrasting the German invasion (carried out by the 22nd Air Landing Division), but mediocre coordination, better German efficiency and German air supremacy led to a German victory and the capture of both islands. Kos fell on 4 October, with 2,500 Italian and 600 British soldiers taken prisoners; 96 Italian officers, including the garrison commander (Colonel Felice Leggio), were executed. Leros, defended by its 7,600-strong Italian garrison reinforced by 4,500 British soldiers, resisted for much longer; after weeks of continuous bombing, on 12 November 2,700 German soldiers landed or were parachuted in different points of the island and, despite numerical inferiority, they prevailed by 16 September, forcing both Italians and British to surrender. The Italian commander, Rear Admiral Luigi Mascherpa, was later executed by RSI authorities, like Campioni.

The most tragic events took place in the Ionian Islands, namely Corfu and Cephalonia, which the German command considered to be of utmost importance for defense of the Balkan coast against possible Allied landings. The Italian garrison on Cephalonia, consisting in the 33rd Mountain Infantry Division Acqui with 11,500 men under General Antonio Gandin, at first did not take any initiative against the much smaller German garrison (2,000 mountain troops under Lieutenant Colonel Hans Barge), and waited for clear orders. On 11 September, the Germans presented an ultimatum which ordered the Italians to surrender; Gandin at first decided to hand over the weapons, but after signs of protest and unrest among his men, he decided to resist. On 13 September, after receiving clear orders from the superior commands in Brindisi, Gandin rejected the ultimatum and attacked the German landing craft attempting to reach the island.

On 15 September, the Germans intervened in force, landing five battalions of mountain troops of the 1st Mountain Division Edelweiss of General Hubert Lanz, supported by self-propelled guns. The Germans repelled the Italian attack and then, after fierce fighting, went on the offensive on 21 September and forced the Italians to surrender at 11:00 on 22 September. After the surrender, the Germans began a bloody reprisal; General Gandin, about 400 officers and 4,000 to 5,000 men of the Acqui Division were executed. 1,300 men had previously been killed in the battle, and another 1,350 subsequently perished in the sinking of ships that were carrying them to mainland Greece. In Corfu the 4,500-strong Italian garrison easily overpowered and captured the 500-strong German garrison; the German prisoners were transferred by sea to Italy (and their presence in Italian hands is probably the reason that prevented the Germans from committing another full-scale massacre like in Cephalonia), while the garrison was reinforced by 3,500 more men. Between 24 and 25 September, however, more German forces, with Luftwaffe support, landed in the island, and on 26 September the Italians, after losing some hundreds of men and running out of ammunition, surrendered. The Italian commander, Colonel Luigi Lusignani, was executed along with 28 of his officers; 1,302 Italian prisoners perished in the sinking of the motor ship Mario Roselli which was to transfer them to the mainland.

The Italian fleet

The clauses of the armistice specifically demanded the surrender of the Italian fleet, as the 'elimination' of the battleships of the Italian Royal Navy would allow a reduction of the Allied naval forces in the Mediterranean. Like their colleagues of the Army, the commanders of the Italian Navy also showed indecision and a lack of capability; the Chief of Staff, Admiral Raffaele De Courten, who had been forewarned of the armistice, remained undecided till the evening of 8 September whether he should comply and surrender the fleet, or order it to be scuttled. Moreover, till the evening of 8 September De Courten did not inform Admiral Carlo Bergamini, the commander of the Italian main battleship force based in La Spezia, about the armistice. Only at that point did he order a bewildered Bergamini to sail with his ship, heading for La Maddalena.

Immediately thereafter, De Courten joined Badoglio and the king in their escape towards Brindisi, and he thus abandoned his command, leaving behind in Rome his deputy chief of staff, Admiral Luigi Sansonetti. The latter, despite his precarious situation, kept radio contact with the ships at sea till 12 September, when De Courten assumed command again. Bergamini, after a metting to convince his reluctant officers of the need to abide by the orders, sailed from La Spezia only at 03:00 on 9 September; the consequence was that the Italian fleet was spotted in daylight and attacked at 14:00 by German aircraft which, employing new Fritz X guided bombs, sank Bergamini's flagship Roma. Bergamini perished along 1,393 of his men. Roma's sister ship Italia was damaged.

After the sinking the rest of the fleet, now under Admiral Romeo Oliva, headed for Malta. A few destroyers and torpedo boats were left behind to pick up Roma's survivors, and afterwards reached the Balearic Islands, where they were interned by the Spanish authorities; two of them, Pegaso and Impetuoso, were scuttled near Mahon by their commanders, who did not want them interned or handed over to the Allies. The bulk of the fleet (including the battleships Italia and Vittorio Veneto and five light cruisers) reached Malta on 10 September; a smaller force from Taranto, including the battleships Duilio and Andrea Doria and three light cruisers, under Admiral Alberto Da Zara, had already been transferred there. A number of other Italian ships, mostly torpedo boats, corvettes and submarines, also flocked to Malta during the following days; the last Italian battleship, Giulio Cesare, arrived there on 13 September.

While most of the operational ships of the Italian Navy managed to reach Allied-controlled ports, some were sunk on their way by German ships and aircraft; among them the destroyers Quintino Sella, Ugolino Vivaldi and Antonio Da Noli, the torpedo boats T 6 and T 8, the corvette Berenice, the submarine Topazio (sunk by Allied aircraft in unclear circumstances), the gunboat Aurora, the auxiliary cruiser Piero Foscari, the munition transport Buffoluto, the repair ship Quarnaro and the minelayer Pelagosa, as well as several motor torpedo boats, submarine chasers and smaller craft. Among the casualties was Rear Admiral Federico Martinengo, commander of the Italian anti-submarine forces, killed in action onboard submarine chaser VAS 234 during a skirmish with German R boats.

In the Black Sea, the Italian flotilla of five CB-class midget submarines was captured by Romanian forces.[1][2]

A different fate was met by Italian warships in Crete and Greece, where German forces were prevailing; only the torpedo boat Monzambano managed to escape, while two destroyers and four torpedo boats were captured. Moreover, the torpedo boat Insidioso was captured in Pola, the torpedo boat T 7 was captured in Gruž, the torpedo boat Giuseppe Missori was captured in Durres (a sistership, Rosolino Pilo, was also captured, but her crew later overpowered the German guards and reached an Italian-controlled port) and the submarines Francesco Rismondo and H 6 were captured in Bonifacio. The submarines Ametista and Serpente were scuttled by their commanders off Ancona. The armistice also meant the loss of all ships that were undergoing repair or maintenance work, or suffered from mechanical breakdown, or were unable to put to sea; these included the battleship Cavour, the heavy cruisers Gorizia and Bolzano, the light cruiser Taranto, eight destroyers, thirteen torpedo boats, eight corvettes and twenty submarines. Most of them were scuttled or sabotaged, the rest were captured. German forces also captured a number of ships under construction; among them the incomplete aircraft carrier Aquila and several Capitani Romani-class cruisers, Ariete-class torpedo boats, Gabbiano-class corvettes, Flutto-class submarines and R-class transport submarines. Many Ariete-class and Gabbiano-class ships were completed by the Germans and entered service with the Kriegsmarine.

The majority of the officers and men of the Italian Navy were heavily disappointed by the order to surrender to the Allies; discipline was maintained, although there were some instances of insubordination, mutiny and attempts to prevent from surrendering some ships. The most notable episodes were the above-mentioned scuttling of the torpedo boats Pegaso and Impetuoso, the arrest of Rear Admiral Giovanni Galati, who insisted on scuttling the ships, and the mutiny of part of the crew of the battleship Giulio Cesare, who imprisoned its commander and planned to scuttle the ship, but was eventually persuaded to comply with the orders.

Most of what remained of the Italian merchant fleet was captured by the German forces in Italian harbors.

The Italian air force

The Royal Italian Air Force was also taken completely by surprise by the armistice, and also in this case the high commands showed improvidence and ineptitude; the Chief of Staff, General Renato Sandalli, did not inform his subordinates till 5 September, then, in the night of 8 September, he ceded command to General Giuseppe Santoro and fled to Brindisi without issuing the executive orders of the planned directive ("Memorandum No. 1"). The Italian air bases did not receive any clear order and thus the air force was not employed against the German invaders, whom instead took the initiative and swiftly captured the main air bases in Northern Italy, where most of the remaining aircraft were based. Only on 11 September Santoro ordered all units to take off to reach Allied-controlled air bases, while the commander of the Rome air bases, General Ilari, started negotiations and handed over bases and planes to the Germans. Out of about 800 operational aircraft, only 246 managed to reach Allied-controlled territory, while two-thirds of the planes fell in German hands, and 43 were shot down by Luftwaffe planes while flying south. Some fighter units decided to stay with the Axis and formed the core of the National Republican Air Force.


Already on 10 September, the OKW command issued a first communique which announced the annihilation of the Italian military apparatus, stating that "the Italian armed forces no longer exist". While many Italian units would fight on for days or weeks in the Greek islands and the Balkans and would retain control of Corsica, Sardinia, Apulia and Calabria, the command structure and major units of the Italian Army had effectively dissolved in the space of two days.

With the success of "Achse" and its secondary operations, the Wehrmacht achieved an important strategic success, securing the most important strategic positions in the Mediterranean theatre and overcoming great operative difficulties; it also captured large quantities of weapons, equipment and resources that turned useful in integrating the depleting resources of Germany. Over 20,000 Italian soldiers were killed in battle and nearly 800,000 were captured; over 13,000 of them drowned in the sinking of several ships that were carrying them from Aegean islands to the Greek mainland, and the others were not recognized prisoner of war status and were instead classified as "Italian Military Internees" and exploited for forced labour in Germany’s war industry. Up to 50,000 of them died in German captivity.

The Allies, whose objectives in the Mediterranean were rather limited (push Italy out of the war and keep part of the German forces engaged) and whose strategic planning presented heavy conflicts between British and Americans, were not able to exploit the Italian collapse and limited themselves to go up the Italian peninsula in a long and wearing two-year campaign, which required high land and air forces and resources. Also the Germans, however, had to divert a considerable amount of mobile and skilled units to Italy and the Balkans, depriving themselves of troops that would be more useful on the main Eastern and Western fronts, but this allowed them to keep war away from the southern regions of Germany, to protect rich industrial regions of high importance in weapons production, and achieved the political and propaganda objective of creating an Italian fascist government formally still allied to the Third Reich.

The sudden and complete collapse of the Italian state and war machine was mainly caused by the mistakes made by the political and military leadership, the unrealism of their initiatives, the misunderstanding about the real consistence and objectives of the Allies, by the decision of the Italian leadership to surrender to the Allies but not to fight against the Germans. The lack of clear orders to the subordinate commands, the importance given to the personal safety of the leadership and its institutional continuity even when to the detriment of the capability of resistance of the armed forces, led to the disintegration of the units, abandoned without a leader to the German attacks and reprisals, despite some instances of valor and fighting spirit.


According to German accounts, the Italian forces disarmed totaled 1,006,370. Broken down by region, they were:

The disarmament of such a large army resulted in the confiscation of large numbers of weapons and military-related equipment:

Only 197,000 Italian soldiers continued the war alongside the Germans. Some 94,000, mostly fascists, chose this option right away. The rest, some 103,000 men, chose during their detention to support the Italian Social Republic to escape the harsh circumstances in the German labor camps. Between 600,000 and 650,000 remained in German labor camps, where between 37,000 and 50,000 of them perished. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Italian soldiers had been killed during the fighting in September 1943,[3] and 13,000 more had perished in the sinking of POW ships in the Aegean.


See also


  1. Jamie Prenatt, Mark Stille, Axis midget submarines: 1939-45, p. 15
  2. Paul Kemp, Midget Submarines of the Second World War, p. 65
  3. http://www.anrp.it/edizioni/porte_memoria/2008_01/pag_35_palmieri_avagliano.pdf
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