Friday, May 27, 2016

Italy and the War in Iraq in 1941

One of the most neglected areas involved in World War II was the Middle East. Everyone knows about the fighting in north Africa, across Europe, southern Russia and the Far East but relatively few are aware of how involved countries in the Middle East were. Italian forces were involved in this area as well and one area included in this was the then Kingdom of Iraq. Just to understand the basic background of the region, the Kingdom of Iraq had been created with the support of the Allies after the breakup of the Turkish Ottoman Empire following World War I. The Kingdom of Iraq was made a mandate of the British Empire but by the time of the outbreak of World War II, all British troops had been withdrawn for several years with only a few RAF bases being maintained there. Iraq was governed by Iraqis and defended by Iraqis though they remained a part of the British Empire. Some were happy with this state of affairs but others were not and one of those who was not was Rashid Ali, an Arab nationalist who became prime minister of Iraq in 1940. He seemed a likely collaborator with the Axis powers.

Rashid Ali al-Gaylani
When World War II broke out, the Iraqi government under Rashid Ali did, rather unenthusiastically, break off diplomatic relations with the Nazi Germany due to the state of war between Britain and Germany. However, when the Kingdom of Italy declared war on Britain and France, the Iraqis did not break off diplomatic relations with Italy and, that being so, the Italian embassy in Bagdad became the center of operations for the Axis sympathizers in the area. At the same time, Italian air power was bringing the war to the Middle East when daring, long-range bombing missions by the Regia Aeronautica, hit British oil facilities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in October of 1940, (mentioned previously here) forcing the British to redirect military resources and causing a fuel shortage that allowed Italian forces to reinforce the armies in Libya without serious opposition from the British. Meanwhile, in Iraq, Rashid Ali worked to eliminate British influence in the country and began working with the German minister in Turkey and the pro-Nazi Grand Mufti of Jerusalem to forge closer ties with the Axis powers. The British, naturally, learned of this and responded with sanctions against Iraq.

11 October 1942, the Grand Mufti gives Arab volunteers
for Italy their unit flag
In 1941 Rashid Ali was forced to resign as prime minister but he soon returned and launched a successful coup on April 1, taking over the country and installing a new regent for the child monarch, King Faisal II. He expelled pro-British officials from the country and asked the Germans for military assistance in the event of war. The British response was rather limited at first, consisting of the transfer of British and imperial forces from India and strengthening the Royal Navy presence in the Persian Gulf. As Iraqi forces moved in around RAF bases in the country, the British responded by launching air strikes, destroying most of the Iraqi air force and enabling them to send support to British forces at Habbaniya which had been besieged by the Iraqis. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem declared a jihad against the British and the Iraqis cut off the oil supplies of the country from going to the Allies. Air power was critical in these operations and the early destruction of much of the Iraqi air force gave Britain a clear advantage.

SS.79 Sparviero
When the Iraqis tried to attack Habbaniya from the air with one of their few surviving planes, it was an Italian SM.79 Sparviero. RAF interceptors shot down the plane and subsequent British attacks pushed the Iraqis off of their commanding position on the plateau outside Habbaniya. British ground and air attacks also took a heavy toll on Iraqi reinforcements sent to the area, which had collided with retreating Iraqi forces causing much confusion on the ground. The Germans, with the situation worsening, moved to support the anti-British Iraq regime and obtained support from the Vichy French government, which held power in Syria, to support their efforts to bolster the pro-Axis forces in Iraq. Using Syrian bases, a number of German Luftwaffe personnel and aircraft were sent from May 10-15 to reinforce the Iraqis and develop a joint plan of action against the British. Unfortunately, the Allies were aware of this as messages were still traveling via the Italian diplomatic channel which was being intercepted by London.

CR.42 Falco
On May 27, 1941 (75 years ago today) support for the Iraqis also arrived from the Kingdom of Italy with the transfer to the Iraqi city of Mosul of 12 Fiat CR.42 biplane fighters from the 155a Squadriglia of the Regia Aeronautica to create the ‘Squadriglia speciale Irak’. It was these Italian aircraft which fought the last air engagement of the campaign when, on May 29, the Italian planes intercepted a force of Hawker Hart light bombers escorted by Gloster Gladiators. In the aerial combat that ensued, the Italians shot down two Gladiators for the loss of one CR.42 biplane. Axis forces were soon on their way out again as the Iraqi forces had almost nothing at all to support the Axis air forces and Turkey, a neutral country, refused to allow Axis military units to move through their country to supply and reinforce their units in Iraq. It was not long before the German and Italian forces in Iraq began to pull out. Some German units did see action as the British launched a major offensive to take back control of Iraq but they did minimal damage and had no effect on the outcome.

As the British moved advanced on Bagdad with a column of troops from the Indian Imperial Army, on May 29 Rashid Ali and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem fled to Persia and from there to Germany. The British secured Bagdad and a pro-British government was put back into power. That was the end of the effort to put Iraq into the camp of the Axis powers. However, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem continued to call on Muslims to unite behind Nazi Germany and he helped organize Muslim volunteers for the Nazi Waffen-SS, though they ultimately proved unsatisfactory. The Italian army also formed a special unit for Arab volunteers who wished to fight alongside them the following year on May 1, 1942. These recruits came from various Arab or Islamic countries and some did come from Iraq. However, the course of the war with its numerous setbacks discouraged enlistment and no more a few hundred Arabs ever joined the ranks. They were never fully organized and equipped before the end came with the 1943 armistice.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Triple Alliance

It was today in 1882 that the German Empire, the Kingdom of Italy and Austria-Hungary joined in the "Triple Alliance". Ever since, the Kingdom of Italy has been frequently criticized for failing to follow her allies into the First World War, however, very few understand the details of the agreement made by the representatives of Kaiser Wilhelm I, King Umberto I and Kaiser Franz Joseph I. It was, from the start, intended to be a defensive alliance of monarchs. Germany feared French or Russian actions against them, the Austrians feared Balkan unrest, Russian support for them and did not want to have to worry about a war with Italy at the same time as such a threat. Italy had also recently been outraged by the French annexation of Tunisia. Italians had thought that by refraining from the rush to grab colonies, Italy would gain the moral high ground and the respect of the world. Instead, Italy gained nothing and had Tunisia snatched out from under them by the French Republic. So, it was hoped that the Triple Alliance would deter foreign aggression against Italy and give Italy support, at least from Germany, in the competition for colonial expansion.

Today, all too often, Italy is portrayed in a negative light as never being genuinely committed to the Triple Alliance but this is extremely unfair as it implies that Germany and Austria were. In fact, the Germans never supported Italy in any subsequent colonial venture and the Austrians continued to plan for an attack on their "ally" Italy right up to the outbreak of World War I. In other words, every country continued to look out for their own interests and not those of their allies, which is nothing unique or unusual. In such a situation, it is extremely hypocritical to criticize Italy for doing the same. One should also keep in mind that the details of the agreement was, in fact, violated prior to the First World War and the Kingdom of Italy was NOT the guilty party.

One of the most significant points of the agreement, widely ignored today, was the stipulation that if there was to be any change to the status quo in the Balkans, Austria would consult with Italy before taking action and that if Austria gained any territory in the Balkans, Italy was to be compensated with Austrian territory that was historically and demographically Italian. Austria never honored these promises, never consulting Italy at all about efforts made in the Balkans and refusing to discuss any territorial concessions to Italy after the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Add to this the fact that, in 1914, the Chief of Staff of the Austrian army was a man who had advocated launching an unprovoked invasion of Italy, their ally, and the slain heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had never made much of an effort to hide his strident bigotry toward all Italians. To a lesser degree, German Kaiser Wilhelm II had not impressed many people with his insulting antics towards the King of Italy during a state visit to Rome (he purposely brought his tallest soldiers so as to make the short Italian monarch seem tiny in comparison -a petty and juvenile antic).

It should, therefore, be no great surprise that when war came, Italians were not rushing to arms to fight alongside Germany and Austria. It is also worth repeating that the Triple Alliance was always a defensive alliance and, while there were certainly circumstances involved, when the fighting actually began it was with the Germans and Austrians being the ones on offensive rather than the defensive. The Triple Alliance, it is true, was not a successful pact as it did not prevent war and did not endure beyond the Austro-German ethnic core (the Hungarians were not in favor of war in 1914 either). However, to portray Italy as the false partner, to portray Italy as the one who treacherously betrayed "faithful" allies, is preposterous and totally untrue.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Abdication - Today in Italian History

It was on this day in 1946 that His Majesty Vittorio Emanuele III abdicated as King of Italy, passing the crown to his son, Umberto II, who was already acting on his behalf as 'lieutenant of the realm'. The general assumption has usually been that the King abdicated, three weeks before the referendum on the future of the Italian monarchy, to improve the chances of his son in the upcoming vote. As with most things involving King Vittorio Emanuele III, arguments continue on this subject and it has been the focus of criticism from elements on the left as well as the right. Some republicans opposed the abdication because they feared it would improve the position of King Umberto II in public opinion. Other republicans supported it as a 'too little, too late' gesture that would be seen as an act of manipulation. On the right, there were monarchists who opposed it because of the already too-leftist direction the country was taking while others supported it as the necessary result of a lost war. There were also those, and not a few, who thought it should have happened much sooner in order to save the monarchy by making a fresh start as soon as possible with a new monarch who had not been on the throne during the Fascist era and the painful invasion of Italian soil. Many have puzzled over what the King must have been thinking in abdicating when he did after waiting for as long as he did in spite of the clear pressure from anti-Fascist politicians as well as the Allied nations for him to do so. I could be wrong of course, but to me, the King's position seems clear.

For one thing, the King rightly felt that his own abdication was unjustified in so far as it implied his being responsible for the entire Fascist era, which was how the issue was usually framed. It was only after the Liberals failed to come together to put forward an alternative and only after numerous offers to other political figures had been rejected that the King had invited Mussolini to form a government; a government which was originally a coalition government in which the Fascists were a minority. The public, unpopular as it later became to say so, had been supportive of Mussolini for most of his tenure and it had, after all, been the King who had taken action to finally have the Duce removed from power and took the first steps to getting Italy out of the war. The King was also very much alarmed at how many dangerous elements, including communists fresh from Russia, were already being taken in to the Badoglio administration. He did not hold out much hope for his son being given a fair chance in light of all of this and that the ultimate result would be the end of the monarchy and a republic that would be ruinous for everyone but the communists. It is worth pointing out that events would ultimately prove the King entirely correct in all of these predictions.

In the end, my own thoughts on this subject are rather complicated though undoubtedly sympathetic to the King. In my view, he should not have had to abdicate at all and yet such a thing was probably unavoidable and being unavoidable it would have been better to have come sooner rather than later. It was only the latest in what had become a series of 'no-win' situations for the King of Italy. His departure from Rome, for example, was a disaster but staying behind would have probably sealed his fate and led to disaster as well. Abdication was not unprecedented in such circumstances and he had already surrendered his thrones as Emperor of Ethiopia and King of Albania but the issue had been framed in the context of the Fascist dictatorship and as such it was unavoidable that abdication would be seen by many as an implicit acceptance of responsibility for that, which was completely wrong. Abdicating earlier would probably have made things better for King Umberto II but, would it really have changed the outcome of the referendum? Given that it was the enemies of the monarchy who were carrying out the referendum and counting the votes, it is hard to see how this could be. It was a rigged contest which is plainly evident to all but the willfully ignorant. As such, the abdication of the King was a sad event, a complicated event and probably represented a situation for which there simply were no "good options" left available.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Today in Italian History

The fifth of May is a significant day in the history of the Kingdom of Italy with two significant events that stand out, one in the creation of the Kingdom of Italy and the other in considerably expanding its power overseas. The first, and probably more famous, event came on this day in 1860 when Garibaldi and his intrepid band of one thousand volunteers set sail from Genoa bound for the island of Sicily. This marked the beginning of one of the most stunning and successful military campaigns in Italian history, a real upset that saw a ragged band of mostly inexperienced romantics, take on a large and professional standing army and win. It was the start of the campaign that ultimately ended in the reunification of northern and southern Italy for the first time practically since the fall of the Roman Empire. With the sailing of those ships carrying Garibaldi and "the Thousand" the course of Italian history was set to change forever in a major way.

On, perhaps, a more controversial note, it was the fifth of May in 1936 that Italian troops occupied the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, the culmination of Mussolini's "Marcia della ferrea volonta" or 'March of the Iron Will' to end the Second Italo-Abyssinian War with a dramatic and awe-inspiring show of force. After exhorting his people to fight to the last, Emperor Haile Selassie had fled the city several days earlier for French Somaliland and immediately after his departure the city erupted in a frenzy of looting and vandalism, the Imperial Palace itself being thoroughly gutted before Italian troops arrived and restored order with Marshal Pietro Badoglio proclaiming a victorious end to the war in Ethiopia. When word of the success reached Rome, the event became probably the most celebrated victory of the Fascist era.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

When Italy Returned to Rhodes

It was on May 4, 1912 that the forces of the Kingdom of Italy landed on the historic island of Rhodes, which had been under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire virtually since 1522 when the Turks conquered the island from the Christian Knights Hospitaller. The island actually played a key part in the history of the Italian Royal Family as one of the earlier Counts of Savoy, Amedeo V (“Amadeus the Great”), had fought with the Knights Hospitaller defending Rhodes from the Turks, beginning the association of the House of Savoy with the white cross on a red field and the Savoy motto “FERT”, an abbreviation of “Fortitudo Eius Rhodum Tenuit” or ‘His Strength Preserved Rhodes’. Due to this long legacy, there was a sense of something historically significant when the Italian forces landed on Rhodes, ending centuries of Islamic rule over the island and restoring it to the rule of a Catholic, Christian monarch. Originally, it was not certain that Italian rule would be permanent over Rhodes but eventually, after the defeat and downfall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the Turks recognized Rhodes and the other Dodecanese Islands as an Italian possession.

Rhodes was then grouped with other islands in the area as part of the Isole italiane dell’Egeo or ‘Italian Islands of the Aegean’ in terms of their colonial administration. The original intent of the islands was to serve as a strategic stepping stone for further Italian expansion as part of what had been the Allied plan for the partition of Turkey which ultimately never came about. Italian naval bases were established in the islands and they would ultimately play a part in World War II but there was never any further expansion at the expense of Turkey. Early on the islands were under military rule but later a civilian administration was established. In the beginning of the period of Italian rule, multiculturalism of a sort prevailed with all ethnic and religious communities existing as they always had other than that the preeminence of the Muslims was removed. All of that changed, however, with the appointment of Cesare De Vecchi, Count of Val Cismon, was appointed governor in 1936, serving until 1940.

Cesare De Vecchi was a staunch Catholic and monarchist Fascist who had been one of the quadrumvirs who had led the “March on Rome” by the Black-shirts in 1922. As the governor of the Dodecanese, De Vecchi embarked on a new program to make the islands more ethnically and culturally Italian. Just as he had previously encouraged Catholic missionaries to spread Christianity in the largely Muslim parts of the Italian empire in Africa, De Vecchi (the first Italian ambassador to the Holy See) favored the Catholic Church in the islands at the expense of the Greek Orthodox. Italian names replaced Greek and Turkish names for streets and landmarks, the Italian language became mandatory in the schools and the official language of government and Italian settlers were encouraged to move to the islands and intermarry with the locals. Ultimately, however, relatively few Italians did so though the Italian community present today descends from those who did. Public works campaigns were launched to provide employment and build up the local infrastructure as well as to leave a Fascist Italian architectural mark on the islands. Archeological research was also undertaken to study and preserve the ancient history of the islands and, in a way that was politically helpful, highlighting their past place in the Roman Empire.

In the end, Italian rule over Rhodes lasted until 1943 when Marshal Badoglio arranged an armistice with the Allies. Italian armed forces were taken by surprise with this turn of events and the British and Germans both hoped to take control of Rhodes for the benefit of their own forces. The Germans, being closer at hand, arrived first and Admiral Inigo Campioni had to decide witch side to support. He chose to remain loyal to the government of King Vittorio Emanuele III and so Italian forces did their best to defend the islands from the German onslaught. At first, the fight went rather well but the surrender of Italian forces in Greece left the islands isolated and the British were in no position to support them in their resistance to the German attack. Finally, Admiral Campioni decided to surrender which caused no small amount of confusion given that Italian forces had been so successful in numerous areas. When word first filtered down, some assumed that it must have been the Germans who were to surrender to the Italians only to discover later that it was they who would have to give up.

Control of the islands proved critical as it enabled the Germans to thwart a British offensive in the area later. For the Italian forces taken prisoner, their fate was similar to those elsewhere. Some were killed when their transport was sunk by a British naval attack, others were massacred by the Germans. Some joined resistance forces in Greece, others were held prisoner and eventually joined the pro-German forces of the Italian Social Republic. After the war, the islands were awarded to the Kingdom of Greece by the Allies (United Nations) and so they remain in Greek hands today.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Italy, Albania is Calling

As was recently reported by Breitbart London, Albania has asked for Italian military support to deal with the continuing flow of illegal aliens from North Africa and the Middle East into southern Europe. The Italian Interior Minister is set to sign an agreement next week to send Italian troops to Albania to help that country secure their border and, Rome hopes, to prevent the infiltration of Islamic terrorists into Europe. Obviously, one cannot help but take notice of this considering the history involved with Italian military personnel being deployed, once again, to Albania. It shows how reality often conflicts with idealistic talk. In the past, there was much bluster and denunciations about the notion that Albania was a "protectorate" of the Kingdom of Italy (and that long before the Italian occupation of Albania during the Fascist Era). However, if Albania is unable to enforce its own borders and requires, as is now the case, Italian forces to come in to "protect" Albania from these waves of illegal immigrants passing through the country, then surely Albania is declaring itself to be, de facto, an Italian "protectorate"? One cannot, after all, be "independent" and at the same time "depend" on another country for protection or secure borders. And, if Italy is going to extend this protection to Albania, to take responsibility for the security of Albanian borders, surely it is not unreasonable to expect that Italy should be given something in compensation? People of any era can denounce the idea of "imperialism" all they please but the fact is that it continues to occur and reoccur throughout history because reality intrudes on idealism and the facts of the situation result in the same sort of system coming back into being time and time again. We should simply be honest and not in denial about the facts of reality.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Double Royal Birthday

Today is a double royal birthday for the Kingdom of Italy, House of Savoy. It was on this day in 1820 that HM King Vittorio Emanuele II was born and on this same day in 1844 his son and heir HM King Umberto I was born.