Friday, January 23, 2015

Lessons from Honorius

It was on this day in 393 AD that Emperor Theodosius the Great proclaimed his son Honorius "co-emperor" of the Roman Empire. Honorius was only eight-years old at the time but he would go on to have one of the most disastrous reigns in Roman imperial history, a far cry from that of his father. Emperor Theodosius had reunited the Roman world, being the last caesar to rule both east and west, defended the frontiers, established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and generally had quite a glorious reign. Emperor Honorius, on the other hand, would preside over the first sacking of Rome by the barbarian hordes when Alaric the Visigoth captured the Eternal City in 410 AD. How could this have happened?

There were many contributing factors of course but one that stands out was the lack of an effective commander to lead the Roman legions against the enemy. Yet, such a man had existed previously in the reign of Emperor Honorius and that was the vociferous warrior Stilicho. A 'Romanized' barbarian himself (he was half-Vandal), Stilicho had defended Italy from the barbarians with remarkable ability, rushing from one danger point after another to defend the Italian heartland of the Roman Empire from attack after attack. He was one of the most remarkable generals of Roman history. He was also the Emperor's former guardian and his father-in-law. However, a particular dishonest official managed to convince Honorius that Stilicho was plotting against him and so Honorius had Stilicho executed. Thus the Roman Empire lost its most talented general at a time when such a man was sorely needed.

What lesson can be learned from this? The lesson is compounded by the fact that this was not an isolated incident. Later, Emperor Valentinian III had another talented Roman general, Flavius Aetius, executed. It was Flavius Aetius who defeated Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons-sur-Marne. The point is that, in its declining years, the Roman Empire had ceased to value men of talent and proven success. On the contrary, such men were plotted against by lesser men who feared them because of their talent. They saw them as rivals rather than as valuable assets to defend the Roman world. We can see, with the sack of Rome, where such selfish attitudes ended. Today, it seems many have the same mindset, glorifying the mediocre and treating the talented and successful with contempt rather than appreciation. This is something that should be stopped, otherwise we shall all end up like Emperor Honorius, bereft of talent and with an empire crumbling around him.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Assault on Anzio

It was on this day in 1944 that the bloody Battle of Anzio began in World War II. This was part of the Allied "Operation Shingle" which came about because of the stalemate in Italy caused by the determined defense of the German 'Gustav Line'. The Anglo-American forces were having no luck breaking through and so British Prime Minister Winston Churchill came up with the plan for an amphibious landing behind the Gustav Line at Anzio which would threaten the German position from behind and force them to retreat or crush their army between two Allied attacks. However, the overall Axis commander, Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, was a very clever general while the Allied commanders gave less than their best performance, lacking in coordination, aggressiveness and confidence. The result was the Battle of Anzio which was a bloodbath for the Allies. Eventually, of course, they did break out, Rome fell to U.S. Army forces and the Germans retreated to the new 'Gothic Line' farther north, however, Anzio had still been a very costly disaster. The Allies lost several thousand more total casualties than their Axis enemies. Because the initial landing force was relatively weak, it could only hold its ground and wait for reinforcement. In the meantime, Kesselring was able to use interior lines to move Axis forces into position on the high ground surrounding Anzio very quickly and effectively, turning the Anzio beach into a shooting gallery that decimated the Allied forces. If the initial push had been stronger, and thus able to be more aggressive, it might have gone very differently.

In most accounts of the Battle of Anzio, the Italian contribution is left out completely. This is not very surprising considering that the vast majority of the forces engaged were British, American or German. However, there were Italian units involved in the Battle of Anzio and they gave very good service, earning praise from their superiors. Royal Italian Army units loyal to the King were organized into the "Italian Co-Belligerent Army" which fought with the Allies on the Gustav Line but none of these were involved in the Battle of Anzio (though they gave good service and won the respect of the British and American forces that fought alongside them). It was rather, on the Axis side that the only Italian participation occurred at the Battle of Anzio consisting of two battalions from the military forces of the Salo Republic and Italian elements serving with the Germans. These were: the Nembo Battalion of the RSI parachute regiment Folgore led by Captain Corradino Alvino and the Barbarigo Battalion of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, an elite formation that was essentially the private military of the "Black Prince" Junio Valerio Borghese. The battalion was led by Captain Umberto Bardelli. With the Germans there was the 2nd SS Vendetta Battalion and the 29th Italian SS Rifle Battalion.

The Folgore and all the forces of the X MAS were recognized as among the best that the RSI had to offer, however it was the Italian SS forces that first proved themselves at the Battle of Anzio. The Waffen-SS was regarded as an elite amongst the German forces but the Italian units were not considered full-fledged SS troops but were, rather, volunteers attached to the SS. The Battle of Anzio changed all of that. Because of their fierce fighting in the engagement, particularly that of Vendetta under Lt. Colonel Delgi Oddi, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler (overall commander of all SS forces) ordered that the Italian units be upgraded to full SS status because of how well they proved themselves at the Battle of Anzio in which their effectiveness was praised by several German commanders who were present. Just as the units loyal to the House of Savoy in the Italian Co-Belligerent Army proved themselves effective soldiers on the Gustav Line, so too did those serving with the Axis earn their reputations at the Battle of Anzio.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Sicilian Revolution of 1848

1848 is known as the year of revolutions and it all started on this day in 1848 on the island of Sicily. It was, in many ways, an attempt to revive the previous constitutional government enacted in Sicily after the French conquest of Italy when the Bourbon Royal Family was forced to flee Naples and relocate to the island. The nobles were able to pressure King Ferdinando IV of Naples (Ferdinando III of Sicily and later Ferdinando I of the Two-Sicilies) to enact a constitution based on the British Westminster model of limited government, constitutional monarchy. However, once Napoleone was defeated and the King restored to his throne in Naples the constitution was promptly abolished. The 1848 Revolution was an attempt to revive that model, along with Sicilian independence but also as part of a grander scheme to create a united federation of Italian states. The uprising was timed to coincide with the birthday of King Ferdinando II of the Two-Sicilies who had early been the hope of the liberals but who later suppressed the advocates of constitutional government in Sicily. That is what the "revolutionaries" of 1848 wanted, a constitutional monarchy under the Bourbons that would be part of a wider Italian federation.

After further rebellions broke out in southern Italy, Ferdinando II did finally agree to having a constitution, however, it was never finalized due to a dispute with the King over his oath of 'office' as it were. Eventually, the Bourbon troops were able to use force to suppress the new government, restore the absolute power of the King and the constitution was, again, discarded. However, the revolution in Sicily in 1848 was noteworthy for having produced an independent government for at least 16 months led by Ruggero Settimo ("Roger VII, a name going back to the Norman Kings of Sicily of the Middle Ages). It also sparked a wave of pro-constitutional uprisings throughout Italy because of its real, albeit short-lived, success. The most prominent was King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia who raised the tricolor flag and enacted a new constitution. Other Italian monarchies did the same but all ended up revoking their constitutions after the crisis had past with the exception of the Savoy monarchy in Piedmont-Sardinia. This was the origin of the nickname of King Vittorio Emanuele II as the "honest king" because he stood by the constitution and did not abolish it as his contemporaries had done.

The uprising also set the scene for First Italian War for Independence, led by King Carlo Alberto with the other Italian states participating against Austria, which was not successful. However, it proved that there was a sizable number of people in Sicily and across the Italian peninsula who favored Italian unification. However, it also brought into contrast the division between those who favored constitutional monarchy and those who favored republicanism. The republicans could point to the revocation of the constitutions in Sicily and across the peninsula as proof that the monarchs could not be trusted to keep their word and that republicanism was, therefore, the only solution. However, the constitutional monarchists could point to King Carlo Alberto and Vittorio Emanuele II who upheld the constitution and argue that the problem was not monarchy but rather the individual monarchs themselves who, rather than coming together in a confederation, should simply be replaced by the King of Piedmont-Sardinia. It was one step on the road to the unification of the country and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Evolution of the Italian Flag

It was on this day in 1797 that the forerunner of the flag of Italy was first adopted; the tricolor flag of the Cispadane Republic. This was a small puppet-state created with the support of the First French Republic after the conquest of northern Italy by the army of General Napoleone Buonaparte. Everywhere the French revolutionary army marched they set up small republics in their own image (as well as planting those ridiculous "Liberty Trees" everywhere) and the Cispadane Republic was one of these, covering mostly what had previously been the Duchy of Milan as well as Modena, Bologna, Ferrara and Reggio Emilia. The Congress of the Cispadane Republic adopted the flag which featured colors probably inspired by the banners and uniforms of the Lombard Legion and the Italian Legion which were red, white and green. The government had been established by Napoleone and the troops were organized to assist the French in their war against Austria. Although it gave opportunity of those of nationalist, pan-Italian ideals, it was in no way a legitimate, sovereign country as ultimate power still lay with the French Republic which would be proven by how successor regimes changed their governing style based on similar changes in France. When the Cispadane Republic was united with the Transpadane Republic to form the Cisalpine Republic, they adopted a more familiar flag:
Flag of the Repubblica Cisalpina
The Cisalpine Republic covered much of northern Italy and what had formerly been the Republic of Venice but it too was a client-state of the French Republic and it was the French who first published the constitution of the Cisalpine Republic. It's flag was inspired by that of the Cispadane Republic but was done in the French vertical rather than horizontal style. In 1802 it changed itself to the Italian Republic with Napoleone as president and adopted a different flag.
Flag of the Italian Republic
The (Napoleonic) Italian Republic did not last long, only from 1802 to 1805 and was basically a vehicle for maintaining French rule over northern Italy. When Napoleone made himself Emperor of the French, republicanism was suddenly no longer fashionable and the Italian Republic was hastily converted into a monarchy for the French Emperor.
Flag of the (Napoleonic) Kingdom of Italy
The Italian Republic became the Kingdom of Italy with Napoleone Buonaparte as King of Italy which was a larger state than its predecessors. It was under the immediate rule of Napoleone's step-son Eugene de Beauharnais who served, with ability, as Viceroy. It was a stylish state but still essentially a dependency of the First French Empire. When France was defeated the Kingdom of Italy did as well as most of its territory was seized by the Austrian Empire.
Flag of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia
The tricolor flag was used for many years as the preferred symbol of pan-Italian nationalism and patriotic movements struggling for independence. However, it did not become an official national flag again until King Carlo Alberto made it the national flag of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1848 with the addition of the Savoy arms in the center (the war flag also featured the Savoy crown). Other Italian states did the same in and after 1848 as they adopted constitutional government (though none but the Savoy would uphold them after the crisis was over) with their own special insignia or royal arms displayed in a similar way, such as:
Flag of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, 1848
Flag of the Roman Republic, 1849
Flag of the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies, 1848
Flag of the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies, 1860-61
As Italian independence was won and the country was united, the 1848 flag of Piedmont-Sardinia was taken up as the official national flag of the new Kingdom of Italy. On April 15, 1861 the green, white and red tricolor with the Savoy royal arms was legally declared the Italian national flag and remained so until the republican period when both the Salo Republic and the modern Italian Republic made the national flag an empty tricolor, removing the Savoy arms.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Italian Invasion of Russia

When Germany launched the invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed “Operation Barbarossa” it was a joint effort of every Axis country in Europe as well as including many volunteers from occupied and even neutral countries. There were Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Dutch, Belgians, Danes, Norwegians, Finns, even French and Spanish troops as well as others. When the invasion began, Mussolini was determined that the Kingdom of Italy would participate and, perhaps, the Duce focused more on it that he should have given the already thinly-stretched state of the Italian armed forces. Nonetheless, Mussolini considered the operation to be of great importance. He saw it as a test between the competing ideologies of Fascism and Communism as well as being important to maintain Italy as one of the top three Axis powers. Germany had come to assist Italy in North Africa and Mussolini saw it as essential that Italy come to assist Germany in Russia. The Duce also viewed the contest as one of east vs. west as he said at the military parade of the initial Italian commitment of 50,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. He called attention to how many diverse European peoples were coming together to defend western civilization from the Bolsheviks. He closed by saying, of the Communists, “We know this enemy of mankind. Twenty years ago, we scoured him from our peninsula. Now we will purge him from the planet! Long live our continental civilization! Long live Italy!”

General Giovanni Messe
The Italian commitment began with about 62,000 men, as well equipped as possible, organized into the Corpo di Spedizione Italiano or CSI in Russia. This included the divisions Torino, Pasubio, a Celere (fast) division as well as a unit of Blackshirts, the Fascist militia. They were led by one of the most talented Italian commanders of the time, perhaps the best to emerge from the war, General Giovanne Messe (a staunch monarchist). They were posted to the southern end of the front in the Ukraine, part of a line of Axis armies that ran all the way north to the Baltic where German and Finnish troops were soon besieging Leningrad. The Italian corps made good progress from the outset, taking several towns as they advanced and impressing their German allies. Despite being rather outdated, the Italian artillery gained specific praise from the Germans for their zeal and accuracy. However, though they were probably better supplied than Italian units elsewhere, it was still not sufficient and General Messe complained particularly of a lack of anti-tank weapons and ammunition. So badly needed were such items that some Italian troops were issued with 20mm anti-tank rifles that most others had discarded. They had armored units of their own, part of the “fast” division, but these included a great many tankettes which were not designed to take on other armored vehicles and were supported by about 10,000 cavalry. Units of the Regia Aeronautica were also dispatched to the Russian front and gave good service as well as naval units, particularly mini-subs which operated in the Black Sea.

However, while the Italian forces lagged behind their German allies in weapons and equipment, one area in which they were much to be preferred was in their interaction with the local Ukrainian and Russian populace. The Italians had no racial prejudice against the Slavs and enjoyed good relations with the locals, liberating them from oppressive Stalinist rule and re-opening the churches that the Communists had closed as part of their efforts to stamp out religion wherever they found it. The Italians viewed the Ukrainian and Russian civilians, not as enemies, but as the first victims of Communist tyranny. When Mussolini visited the front, he saw this for himself and called the war against the Soviets a “holy crusade” -and one cannot help but wonder if there was any hint of irony in his voice for a man who had been a lifelong atheist.

The offensive rolled on and in September of 1941 the CSIR encircled 8,000 Soviet troops in front of the Dnieper River, the Germans being on the east side. The Italians pressed the retreating Soviets east and soon Italian cavalry were riding into Stalino. By the end of the year the Blackshirts were celebrating Christmas in Krestovka. A Soviet land-air attack drove them out but soon the Blackshirts counterattacked and reclaimed the area and continued on the offensive. Alongside the Italians were a number of foreign units serving with them such as the anti-Communist Russian Cossacks who joined the Italian cavalry, the Croat volunteers and the Blackshirt Albanian Legion. In the air, the 22nd Gruppo Caccia and the 61st Gruppo Osservazione Aerea proved invaluable from the outset, shooting down six Russian bombers and two fighters within days of being deployed with no losses for the Italian airmen. Eventually, the 22nd gained 72 victories over the Soviets while losing only 15 planes and of those more were due to accidents rather than enemy action. An example of Italian excellence in the air was Giuseppe “Bepi” Biron who gained “ace” status, shooting down 4-6 aircraft (records of individual victories were not kept at that time) before going back to the skies of southern Italy to more success.

The Soviets launched a massive attack on the Italian forces, hoping to surprise them at Christmas time, but although the fierce fighting raged for a week it was not the victory Stalin had hoped for. The Italians held their ground, threw back the Russian hordes and forced them to retreat. Shortly thereafter, winter conditions brought a halt to operations, though the Italian mechanics did manage to get some planes flight-capable and they were able to do some damage to the Soviets before the arrival of Spring allowed hostilities to resume. Mussolini enlarged the Italian commitment, sending in more divisions and upgrading the CSIR to the Italian Army in Russia even though General Messe advised against it. They were having enough problems supplying the troops on hand and an enlarged command would only mean less for everyone to go around and the commitment of so large a force was simply unsustainable. Nonetheless, Mussolini was determined to show that the Kingdom of Italy was playing a major part in the invasion of Russia when such troops and supplies might have been better spent against the British in Africa.

Italian mini-subs and attack motor boats also appeared in the Black Sea in response to a request for help from German Admiral Erich Raeder. These small craft had a considerable impact, sinking Russian ships loaded with supplies and attacking barges crammed with Red Army soldiers. The Italian and German naval forces were so aggressive that the Soviets were reluctant to risk their own fleet in open combat. They were stung by one attempt to intercept German transports by a Russian heavy cruiser and a destroyer. The warships were attacked by Italian motor boats and one torpedoed the cruiser, putting it out of action for the rest of the war. When the destroyer moved in to pursue, the nimble Italian craft dumped over a trio of depth charges that so damaged the destroyer that it had to break off the pursuit. Enraged, Stalin ordered no more offensive operations without his direct orders.

On land, the Italian forces continued to advance, driving deep into Russian territory. Finally, in August, from Serafirmovitch, they launched a massive counter-attack in the hope of breaking through the Italian lines and turning to take the Germans from the rear. Everything depended on the Italians holding firm and that they did. Often forced to use makeshift weapons, the Italians repelled the Russian attacks and while they lost 1,700 men in the bloody battle, they emerged victorious and had taken 1,600 Russian prisoners as well as large numbers of weapons and ammunition. The Italian cavalry also had their moment of glory at the Isbuschenski Steppe. 2,000 Russians with mortar and artillery support were attacked by units of the Duke of Aosta cavalry division. While Italian and some German support units attacked from the front, Italian cavalry with sabers drawn charged from behind, wiping out two Soviet battalions, capturing 50 machine guns, 10 mortars, 4 artillery pieces and 500 prisoners. Italian artillery was also being modified in the field and becoming highly adept at destroying Russian tanks, soon the last Red Army elements in front of Stalingrad had been smashed and forced to retreat.

What happened next is well known to history as the German and Russian forces began the titanic struggle for the city of Stalingrad, plunging into what would be the bloodiest battle in recorded history. The Germans finally took the city though pockets of Russian resistance continued to hold out. Finally, the Russians planned a massive counter-attack to encircle Stalingrad and targeted the armies of the weaker Axis powers (such as Hungary and Romania) as their point of breakthrough. The Italian army also came under attack during this Don offensive on December 16, 1942. Two days later the main Italian airfield was captured at Kanamirovka and 11,000 Italian troops were surrounded at Scertkovo. As German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein moved to relieve Stalingrad the Red Army attacked to block his effort, their force falling heavily on the Italian army along the Chir River. Many units were overwhelmed in the tidal wave of Russian attacks. One such unit was the Voloire which was wiped out, two officers committing suicide rather than surrendering. Many Italian artillerymen also refused to surrender and fought at their guns to the last man.

While the remaining Italian planes helped escort German transports carrying the wounded out of Stalingrad, pockets of Italian survivors on the ground were surrounded. The Aplini Corps went on the attack to rescue their countrymen but the odds against them were immense. They fought their way in but were surrounded themselves at Nikolayevka. The Germans could provide no help but the brave Alpini fought like heroes and managed to punch their way through the Soviet lines on January 26, 1943. Only a few days later the remaining German troops in Stalingrad surrendered. As a result of this astonishing breakthrough Radio Moscow said, “only the Italian Alpini Corps is to be considered unbeaten on the Russian front”. With their forces all but gone and the situation in the Mediterranean worsening, Mussolini was finally obliged to withdraw the Italian forces from Russia though a few support units did remain behind. Overall, 229,000 Italians had served in Russia and 85,000 would never return. Some 30,000 were wounded and losses in equipment and artillery was almost total.

The Axis offensive against the Soviet Union was ultimately unsuccessful yet the Italian forces had acquitted themselves bravely. They had fought with great talent, tenacity and skill, winning numerous victories against forces far superior to their own. They had also maintained the honor and dignity of the Italian nation, never indulging in cruelty or barbarity against the local population. In the air, the Italian pilots had inflicted far heavier losses than they suffered themselves, on the Black Sea they had proven instrumental in bottling up the Russian fleet and on the ground the Italian troops had fought with unparalleled courage against seemingly impossible odds. Allied propaganda that disparaged the Italian soldier was proven to be entirely false on the steppes of southern Russia and no one learned the lesson better than the Red Army forces that had met the Italians in battle. The Italians who fought on the Russian front had done honor to their King-Emperor, their homeland and the Italian people.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bourbon-Savoy Reconciliation

In response to a question from a concerned reader, I will be addressing here the relationship between the House of Savoy and the House of Bourbon Two-Sicilies. Evidently, some anti-Italian, anti-Savoy people have been spreading some misinformation on this subject, suggesting that there was never any reconciliation between the Bourbons and Savoys and that nothing improved for the Bourbon Two-Sicilies family until the unlawful creation of the republic when they (unlike the Savoy) were allowed to return to Italy to promote their interests and the regional history of Sicily and southern Italy. These people then actually make the case that it was better that the republic be forced on the Italian people as they can see no farther than their own narrow interests and not recognize the wider damage to the monarchist cause this did. They seem to be doing this in an effort to carry on a quarrel that no one else is fighting, indeed that no longer exists. I want to be clear about this point because, while such alleged partisans of the House of Bourbon Two-Sicilies miss no opportunity to slander and defame the venerable House of Savoy, I will not be responding in kind. I have too much respect and admiration for the Bourbon Two-Sicilies to sink to that level, I do not like monarchists "shooting inside the tent" and because I see no reason to carry on such bitterness.

This is a point I want to make clear: such vitriol and misinformation is not coming from the actual members of the House of Bourbon Two-Sicilies but rather from some of their misguided supporters who seem to want to tear Italy apart and go back to the days of the country being a patchwork of feuding states ruled by foreign powers. Let there be no misunderstanding and no misguided ill-will on this issue: neither of the two royals claiming leadership of the House of Bourbon Two-Sicilies have ever called for the break-up of Italy, the secession of the south or the restoration of the pre-1860 Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies. No member of the family alive has ever done such a thing and it is completely untrue that the Bourbon Two-Sicilies only ever recognized Italy after the victory of a republic, in effect, recognizing a united Italy only so they could be free to try to divide it. On the contrary, the Houses of Savoy and Bourbon were reconciled years before the republican ascendency when the country was still the Kingdom of Italy as it had been originally founded.

It was something many had hoped for to further cement national unity, especially at a time when the Kingdom of Italy seemed to be moving up to the top tier of the great powers. Appropriately enough, the reconciliation started with a romance, a romance between a member of the House of Savoy and a child of the head of the House of Bourbon Two-Sicilies. The couple in question was HRH Prince Eugenio, Duke of Ancona (son of the Duke of Genoa) and HRH Princess Lucia Maria Raniera of Bourbon Two-Sicilies (daughter of Prince Fernando Pio, Duke of Calabria -the last undisputed head of the House of Bourbon Two-Sicilies). The couple obtained the permission of their parents to be married in 1938 in Munich, Germany (the mother of the bride was Bavarian). Prior to this happy occasion, Prince Fernando Pio came to Rome and was received by HM King Vittorio Emanuele III. He recognized the place of the House of Savoy and the authority of the Kingdom of Italy at that time. What did happen later, after the republican victory, was a further show of reconciliation between the two families when, in 1948, HM King Umberto II bestowed on the Duke of Calabria the Supreme Order of the Most Holy Annunciation, the oldest and most prestigious chivalric order of the House of Savoy. The Duke later reciprocated by bestowing on the exiled King of Italy the collar of the Constantinian Order. their most prestigious order of chivalry.

Obviously, these are not the actions of a man holding a grudge about things that happened in 1860 or a man who preferred a republic to the Kingdom of Italy. The House of Bourbon Two-Sicilies, under Prince Fernando Pio, Duke of Calabria, recognized the unified Kingdom of Italy, the authority of King Vittorio Emanuele III and later King Umberto II in their exchange of honors. The two families were reconciled and no member of the Bourbon Two-Sicilies family since has called for the break-up of Italy or wished for any internal strife for the Italian nation. That should be remembered by people on both sides of the issue. I hope that these facts will clarify the situation and allow for all Italian monarchists to come together in common cause against the republic that has shackled the Italian people in mediocrity for far too long. The past should be remembered, the past should be honored but it should not be used as a weapon to do damage to the present and future. Viva l'Italia!