Monday, September 15, 2014

The Grenadiers of Sardinia

The famous Grenadiers of Sardinia have a history that stretches back around three hundred years and they have earned a high reputation on numerous battlefields in numerous wars during all that time. The First Grenadiers Regiment, a Piedmontese unit, was founded on April 18, 1659 as the Regiment of the Guards (Reggimento delle Guardie) by Duke Carlo Emanuele II of Savoy to be his personal guard. From the Siege of Turin to the Battle of Assietta they proved themselves to be an elite force. In 1774 King Vittorio Amadeo III of Sardinia formed the Regiment of Sardinia (later known as the Second Hunters Regiment) to guard the Royal Family during their exile on Sardinia after French forces had occupied Savoy. When the Piedmontese lands were annexed by France the Regiment of the Guards was disbanded though it had fought bravely in the Italian campaign against Napoleon. After the French defeat at Leipzig the Savoy Royal Family was able to return to Turin and the army began to be reformed. The Regiment of the Guards was restored and the Regiment of Sardinia was relocated to Turin and named the Guards Hunters Regiment (Reggimento Cacciatori Guardie). In 1831 King Carlo Alberto grouped these two regiments into the Guards Grenadiers Brigade and they were given preeminent status in the armed forces of Piedmont-Sardinia.

The Battle of Goito
They gained their motto, “Guards, to me!” when King Carlo Alberto led them at the Battle of Goito in the First Italian War of Independence. Renamed the Grenadier Brigade with the regiments retitled as the First and Second Grenadier Regiments in 1850 they saw extensive service in the Second Italian War for Independence such as at Lonato del Garda, the occupation of the Papal States, San Giuliano, Garigliano and the Siege of Gaeta. After the foundation of the Kingdom of Italy they were relocated to the new capitol of Florence and served as the guard troops at the Royal Palace. During the Third Italian War for Independence they saw action at the Battle of Custoza. The brigade organization was abolished in 1871 but reformed in its entirety in 1881 by King Umberto I. During the First World War, the Grenadier Brigade saw action in the first through the fifth Battles of the Isonzo before being transferred to defend Mount Cenigo in the Asiago offensive by Austria-Hungary. Their position was crucial and as the offensive dragged on, they alone held out to prevent a total encirclement of the Italian forces. The grenadiers fought on heroically, even after their ammunition had been exhausted until finally the Austro-Hungarian offensive was broken by their staunch resistance.

The Grenadiers went back to the Isonzo and fought in the sixth, seventh and eighth battles there before being shattered at the crushing defeat at Caporetto. Like most of the Italian army, the brigade had to be rebuilt after that fiasco but they came back strong. The Grenadiers served with distinction in the Battle of the Piave River and the famous Battle of Vittorio Veneto which finally knocked Austria-Hungary out of the war for good. After the war, based at Rome, another regiment was added and the unit was renamed the XXI Infantry Brigade and the regiments renamed the First, Second and Third Grenadiers of Sardinia. When Italy entered World War II the Grenadiers division was to take part in the invasion of France but the French surrendered before they saw action. The grenadiers did take part in the invasion of Yugoslavia and the occupation of Ljubljana in Slovenia which was annexed by the Kingdom of Italy during the war.

For the Grenadiers of Sardinia, their greatest trial came in the Spring of 1943 when they were detailed to defend the city of Rome itself. As it turned out, they would be defending it from their former German allies after Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio requested an armistice with the Allies and the Germans attempted to take control of as much of Italy as possible. Along with the Sassari and Ariete divisions, the grenadiers fought the Germans in front of Rome for two days before being forced back to the Porta San Paolo. It fought on there with the remnants of other army formations as well as groups of civilian volunteers. Finally, after taking nearly 600 losses and with the King having been removed to the safety of Naples, the Italian troops gave up the fight, though not before handing their weapons over to the civilian population to aid in the resistance that soon sprang up against the German occupation. Some elements, such as a few battalions on the island of Corsica, however, refused to surrender and joined with other Italian units and the Free French to fight the Germans and drive them from the island. In 1944 the division was re-organized on Sardinia as part of the Italian Co-Belligerent Army that was loyal to the King and fought alongside the Allies against the Germans and Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic based at Salo. However, not long before the end of the war they were disbanded again to be amalgamated into the Cremona Combat Group.

In 1946, with the aid of the United States, the Grenadiers of Sardinia Infantry Division was reorganized as part of the gathering forces to guard Europe from the Communist threat. However, their status would never be quite the same again as the fall of the Italian monarchy brought an end to their “royal” status and broke the ties of centuries that bound them to the origins of the grenadiers with the House of Savoy. Nonetheless, the unit remained and was again tasked with the security of Rome. The end of the Cold War brought downsizing which has increased lately but the Grenadiers of Sardinia remain a part of the military of the Italian Republic as a Mechanized Brigade and they still retain their status as a “guard” regiment.
Grenadiers, pre-WW1 at home and colonial service

Prince Umberto in grenadier uniform

Grenadiers of Sardinia in World War II

Grenadiers of Sardinia in the Co-Belligerent Army

Grenadiers of Sardinia in modern times, on parade

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Italian Ace Captain Franco Lucchini

The man generally considered the greatest Italian ace of World War II was Captain Franco Lucchini. Absolute precision is somewhat difficult given the way that Italy (like other countries) originally credited victories collectively rather than individually. This was an effort to encourage teamwork and esprit de corps, which is understandable, but eventually most ended up giving way to individual scoring. Although it may not sound as loftily idealistic, individual scoring encouraged a competitive spirit and also played in to the immense celebrity status that the most successful fighter pilots obtained. Ever since their emergence in the Great War, fighter pilots had been the rock stars of the military and that simply was not going to change. By most accounts, Captain Franco Lucchini scored twenty-six individual aerial victories during World War II. Yet, more than that, his tally of collective victories was fifty-two and he has the distinction of being an ace fighter pilot in both World War II and the Spanish Civil War in which he shot down five planes. Taken altogether, his score would be higher than the top American, French and other aces of World War II so there is no doubt Lucchini was one of the very best fighter pilots in the history of aerial warfare.

Franco Lucchini was born in Rome on July 12, 1917 to the family of a railroad official. From his boyhood he had an interest in aviation and dreamed of flying. When he was sixteen he obtained a glider pilot’s license and in 1935 he joined the Regia Aeronautica as a reserve officer. Sottotenente Pilota di Complemento Lucchini had further training and by the summer of the following year qualified as a military pilot from the Foggia flying school. He received his formal commission on August 13, 1936 and was posted to his first assignment with a squadron in Gorizia. The next year he first saw action when Italian forces were committed to aid the nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. He flew a Fiat CR.32 biplane and, during a transfer flight to Zaragoza, engaged in a battle, alongside his comrades, with four Polikarpov R-Z biplane bombers, escorted by nine Polikarpov I-16 fighters and fifteen Polikarpov I-15 biplane fighters all made in the Soviet Union. It was October 12 and Lucchini shot down one of communist planes for his first aerial victory. Early the next year he shot down an R-Z bomber and eventually gained five victories to make him an “ace”. However, he was shot down twice himself, the second time being taken prisoner by the republican forces. Fortunately, he escaped in February of 1939 and for his achievements in Spain was awarded the Silver Medal of Military Valor.

After returning to Italy, Lucchini was posted to the elite 4th Stormo based in Tobruk in the Italian colony of Libya. When the Kingdom of Italy entered World War II, Lucchini was flying a Fiat CR.42 biplane and early on participated in shooting down a Gladiator. A week later, while flying escort duty, he encountered an RAF Sunderland. It had previously been targeted by other pilots but the heavily armed British craft survived them all until Lucchini moved in with such tenacity that the craft was finally forced down near Bardia where the crew were taken prisoner. Before his first tour of duty was out Lucchini shot down a Gladiator and Hurricane before his unit was transferred to Sicily and outfitted with the new Macchi C.200 Saetta, a lightly armed but highly maneuverable fighter, for offensive operations over the British held island of Malta. Some pilots had trouble adapting to the new craft, but Lucchini showed his skill as high as it had been and growing greater, shooting down four more British Hurricanes between June and September of 1941.

Unfortunately, there was an accident that forced Lucchini to crash land on Ustica (along with several other pilots). He was badly injured and took a lengthy period of time to recover. However, once he was back in action, he proved that he had lost not of his fighting spirit. Flying the new C.202 fighter he was given command of the 84th Squadron and was posted back to Sicily to fly escort for the bombers that were attacking Malta. He shot down two British Spitfires (the most famous RAF fighter of the Battle of Britain) before 4th Stormo were transferred to north Africa for Rommel’s Italo-German offensive into Egypt in 1942. Between June 4 and September 3 Captain Lucchini shot down four Kittyhawks, two Spitfires, two Hurricanes and a Boston light bomber. He also participated in the shooting down of over a dozen other aircraft alongside other Italian pilots. On October 20, Lucchini shot down an American Curtiss P-40 Warhawk but a few days later was himself shot down and badly wounded. He was sent back to Italy to recuperate and two months later his exhausted stormo was transferred out as well.

After sufficient recovery, Lucchini was back in action again by the spring of 1943, given command of the 10th Group on Sicily where he and his men fought a hopeless campaign against insurmountable odds. There was no denying the courage and determination of the Italian pilots but they were hopelessly outnumbered and just after shooting down another Spitfire that was escorting a number of B-17 bombers, Lucchini was caught in a cross-fire from the bombers, lost control of his C.202 and crashed to his death. Only a few minutes later, another of the top Italian aces, Lieutenant Leonardo Ferrulli was shot down and killed as well. It was a dark day indeed for the Regia Aeronautica. By most counts he was the most successful Italian pilot of World War II (there are others who name Teresio Martinoli who also shot down 22 planes) and it is no wonder he was nicknamed the “Baracca of the Second World War” in reference to the top Italian ace from the First World War, Francesco Baracca who brought down 34 Austro-Hungarian planes. Lucchini was known for his keen eyesight, tenacity and aggressiveness in attacking any enemy he found. Contrary to his ferocity in the air, when on the ground he was known as a quiet, serious and rather solitary man. Over his distinguished career he was awarded the Bronze Medal for Military Valor, 3 War Crosses, the German Iron Cross second class, 5 Silver Medals and the Gold Medal for Military Valor.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Giovanni dalle Bande Nere

Lodovico de Medici, better known as Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, was a condottiero, one of the most inspiring figures in Italian military history and a central character in one of the most overlooked efforts to reunite the Italian peninsula. He was born on April 5, 1498 in Forlì to Giovanni de' Medici, "il Popolano" and the strong, captivating Caterina Sforza (natural daughter of the Duke of Milan). In his youth, he was rather wild but showed natural talent as a horseman and swordsman. He first became a professional condottiero working for another member of the Medici family, Pope Leo X. He led the fight against the Rovere Duke of Urbino, forming his own company of irregular light cavalry that specialized in raids and surprise attacks. He won numerous victories and soon established himself as one of the most famous soldiers in Italy at the time. Later, in 1521 he also took part in the war with France for Milan, Parma and Piacenza after Pope Leo X formed an alliance with the German Emperor and King of Spain Charles V. Again, he covered himself in glory winning such victories over the French as at Vaprio d'Adda. When Pope Leo X died, he added black stripes or bands to his arms as a sign of mourning and from that gained his nickname, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere ("Giovanni of the Black Bands").

Pope Clement VII
The Germans recognized his talent and sought his services for themselves in 1523. While fighting for the Imperial Army, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere defeated the French and the Swiss at Caprino Bergamasco. However, the situation changed when another Medici was elected to the papal throne; Pope Clement VII. He bought the services of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and ordered him to switch sides and fight for the King of France against the German Emperor and King of Spain. He did so but was not present at the critical battle of Pavia where the French were defeated and their King Francis I was captured. We can only speculate if his presence might have caused things to unfold differently. As it happened, Emperor Charles V gained a commanding position in Italy and Pope Clement VII only became more and more alarmed that Italy and with it the heart of the Catholic Church would be powerless before the Spanish-German might of Charles V. Finally, he determined that the German presence had to be removed and began trying to unite all the states of Italy together in common cause. It was a desperate gamble but many patriots greeted it with enthusiasm. Giammatteo Giberti said, "This war is not for a point of honor, or for a vendetta, or for the occupation of a city: this war concerns the well-being, or the eternal servitude of all Italy". The military theorist Machiavelli wrote to the Curia, "For the love of God, do not allow this chance to slip by," as he hoped to form an Italian national militia to resist the German-Spanish invasion that would bind all Italians together by blood.

That was not to be, but the campaign went ahead, though Pope Clement VII insisted on a last attempt at peace. It came to nothing as did the Emperor's own proposal and soon the Pope was thrust into the position of leadership for the struggle for the national liberation of Italy as the war began in 1526. Unfortunately, real cooperation was hard to find, despite the stirring words of 'banishing the barbarian' from Italian soil for good. The Pope appointed the Duke of Urbino as his army commander, but the Duke stood by while Milan was savaged and then the Colonna rose up in Rome and attacked the Pope in alliance with the Emperor, forcing him to halt the papal forces for a short time. Yet, all the while, Giovanni and his men gave all Italians reason to hope as his forces harassed the enemy every step of the way, even defeating the fierce German Landsknecht reargiard at the Po River. He alone seemed to possess the skill and the determination to win over the German Imperial Army and his success would have meant a triumph that could have reunited the Italian peninsula under the Medici banner and the Keys of St Peter. However, on November 25, 1526 Giovanni was wounded by a lucky shot from a falconet near Governolo. Surgery was performed but it was no use and he died of his wounds on November 30, 1526.

With his death, resistance collapsed and things might have gone very different had he not been killed. The horrific Sack of Rome might not have occurred and a new era of Italian unity might have been achieved, a revived Roman Empire of competitive cities, working together in common cause with the Papal blessing, bringing all of their talents together. As it was though, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere left behind a legacy of martial valor but also something more tangible. Before his death, Giovanni had married Maria Salviati who gave birth to his son Cosimo who went on to become the second Duke of Florence and later Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany, himself a giant figure in Italian history.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Italy and Albania

Albanian delegation offering the Crown to King Vittorio Emanuele III

King Vittorio Emanuele III visiting Albania

King Vittorio Emanuele III in Tirana

Presenting the flag of the Royal Albanian Guard

The Prince of Naples, Prince Leka II of Albania and Prince of Venice in 2012 when the Prince of Naples made Prince Leka II a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus