Saturday, April 28, 2012

General Giulio Douhet, the Italian Prophet of Aerial Warfare

General Giulio Douhet, aerial warfare visionary and the prophet of strategic bombing was a military innovator and the first great airpower theorist in history. His thinking was decades ahead of his time as he foresaw the day, even at the turn of the last century, when air power would become the dominant offensive weapon of the future, capable of winning wars all on its own long before anyone else saw control of the skies as vital or, indeed, saw hardly any military value in aircraft at all. He was born in Caserta on May 30, 1869 into a family with a long tradition of military service and, in keeping with that tradition, attended the Italian military academy and graduated at the top of his class, earning a commission in the artillery in 1892. He was an innovator from the very start of his career who immediately saw the potential in making the Italian army a mechanized army. He commanded a battalion of the elite bersaglieri light infantry when these were mounted on motorcycles for the first time, giving them added speed and mobility. When Wilbur Wright visited the Kingdom of Italy in 1909 he met the American inventor-aviator and at once saw the potential for the military use of aircraft and became an early and tireless advocate for it.

His foresight was first proven in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 when he was given command of the first ever aviation battalion in Italian military history. Under Douhet, Italy broke new ground by becoming the first power to successfully carry off air-to-ground attacks with the bombing of Turkish outposts in Libya. This was all the proof Douhet required and he immediately saw a brilliant future for military aircraft. Drawing on his wartime experiences, after the conflict he wrote and published the first manual on the doctrines of air combat entitled “Rules of the Use of Airplanes in War” in 1913. Thanks to Douhet, the Kingdom of Italy had taken an early lead as the first world power to take aerial warfare seriously. However, being a ground-breaking thinker is rarely easy. When Italy entered World War I, Douhet was first posted as chief of staff of an infantry division but given his talent and experience was soon transferred to command the army aviation division. He called for Italy to devote huge resources to the air arm and to launch a campaign of saturation bombing against Austria. However, very little was done before his criticisms of the supreme command earned him the wrath of General Luigi Cadorna who had him arrested and court-martialed.

Sadly, this was not out of the ordinary and should not at all reflect poorly on Colonel Douhet as an officer. By 1917 General Cadorna had sacked a total of 216 generals, 255 colonels and 355 battalion commanders who he blamed for one thing or another or who simply disagreed with his handling of the army, over a time when Italian losses had been heavy and territorial gains extremely modest. However, Colonel Douhet used his time well. As he sat in confinement he continued to write about his ideas for the future of war in the air and to further refine his theories on military aviation. Today many remember the bombing raids of the German and Allied armies on the western front but few realize they had only recently discovered the strategy that Douhet had been advocating for years. In 1917, after the disastrous battle of Caporetto, Douhet and the other critics of General Cadorna were proven correct and the top general was replaced and Douhet was released, restored to his rank and put back in command of the new Central Aeronautic Bureau. In 1921 he published his most famous work, “The Command of the Air”. He held a post in the government of Mussolini for a very short time before retiring from the army with the rank of major general in 1923. He died in Rome on February 15, 1930 at 60 years old.

Why, at the end of it all, was General Douhet such a visionary who we should still remember today? What were his great ideas and theories? He was the first to call for an independent air force, separate from the army and the navy (eventually realized in the Regia Aeronautica) and the first to call for versatile fighter planes, what he termed a “battle plane”, that would be capable of air-to-air combat and ground attack missions. Douhet believed that massive fleets of bombers could be used as the ultimate strategic military weapon. He envisioned ground forces being used solely in a defensive role, guarding Italian territory, while the air force was the primary offensive arm of the military and would devastate enemy countries and armies, destroying their infrastructure and forcing them to capitulate. This, he argued, he would be more cost effective, save lives that would otherwise be wasted in human-wave attacks and would make warfare more swift and decisive.

Not everyone in Italy appreciated the ideas of General Douhet or saw his work as applying to them since other countries (such as Germany, France and Britain) had such larger air forces. However, the use of air power was central to Italian victories in Libya against the rebel Islamic forces, in Abyssinia and was absolutely vital in defeating the communist forces in Spain. However, despite a greater emphasis being put on air power in Italy after his time, the country was never in a position, industrially, to fully implement his ideas. Nonetheless, all of the great aerial warfare leaders from Germany, France, Britain and America read his books and were well studied in his theories. These were, to varying degrees, adopted during World War II particularly by the U.S. Army Air Corps and the British Royal Air Force which carried out large-scale strategic bombing, which were key factors in the ultimate Allied victory. Some more recent military historians have at times downplayed the foresight of General Douhet, arguing that no country has ever won a war through the sole use of air power. However, none have fully adopted the strategies he envisioned to carry this out and even in more recent years there are examples in places such as Kosovo and most recently in Libya which prove just how far-sighted Douhet was. In any event, his influence is enormous simply by being the first to imagine a great and central role for air power in warfare. The development of air forces all over the world owe a debt of gratitude to General Giulio Douhet.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Catholic Faith of the Royal Italian Armed Forces

Field mass for an MVSN unit.

Priest blessing troops on the Greco-Albanian front.

Field mass in Abyssinia

Communion in the field in Abyssinia

Chaplain on the Russian front.

A priest blessing the guns in Abyssinia

Field mass in North Africa.

Chaplain Father Ginepro distributing communion in the Balkans.

Father Eusebio preaching to the troops.
Mass in the Tyrolean Alps (World War I)

Mass at sea, in the torpedo room of an Italian submarine.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Italy and The Laconia Tragedy

RMS Laconia in 1922
On September 12, 1942 the British armed troopship RMS Laconia was attacked by the German submarine U-156 under Lt. Commander Werner Hartenstein. The ship carried 3,254 people going from Suez to England by the Cape of Good Hope. Of these people the largest number were 1,800 Italian prisoners of war from the north African front. Even before the ship was sunk, the journey had been a particularly cruel ones for the Italian soldiers. Stuffed into wire cages in the very bottom of the ship, always damp and cut off from sunlight the Italian prisoners were guarded by Polish soldiers who were particularly cruel and brutalized them at every opportunity, even offending some of the British by their conduct. When the ship was hit by the German torpedoes and began to sink, the guards refused to unlock the cages of the prisoners to allow them to at least try to save themselves. Of course the men panicked as the ship began to fill with water and some managed to force open some of the cages in their frenized desperation to save their lives. Yet, even then, the Polish guards actually began firing into them as they tried to climb out, away from the rapidly rising water. Only when the Polish troops fled to save their own lives were any of the Italians able to escape.

Werner Hartenstein
That was still not the end of the torment for the Italian troops, many of whom were attacked with bayonets by their guards when they tried to climb into the lifeboats floating around the rapidly sinking ship. There had also been several hundred British troops on board and a large number of civilians, including of course many women and children. Fortunately, U-Boat captain Hartenstein took pity on this scene and began picking up survivors. He soon had every bit of his already crowded submarine packed from end to end with rescued survivors. The Italians were quick to report on how they had been treated at the hands of their common enemies, in total violation of the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners. Hartenstein sympathized but, of course, could do nothing about it at the time. At the very least, free of their tormentors and in the hands of their allies, at least their suffering seemed to be over. Unfortunately, it was not -though this time everyone would share in the misfortune. The German High Command was already very nervous about the situation Hartenstein had placed himself in. The interior of his submarine and the whole deck was packed with people, making it impossible to use the deck guns or to submerge in case of any danger. A submarine, stuck on the surface, is an extremely vulnerable target indeed.

U-156 carrying survivors
Of course, Hartenstein called for assistance and even broadcast his position to the Allies, making the promise that he would attack no ships that came to help with this humanitarian effort (he couldn't have attacked them if he had wanted to). No Allied assistance showed up but 2 more German U-Boats, 2 French warships of the Vichy government and an Italian submarine, the Cappellini, were quickly sent to help. The first to arrive were U-506 and U-507 which took off some of the people from Hartenstein, allowing him in U-156 to look for more survivors and keep them together until the bigger French ships arrived. However, four days after the sinking, an American B-24 Liberator bomber arrived and, ignoring the large Red Cross flag displayed across his deck and the signals explaining that he was engaged in rescue operations, attacked the submarine still carrying survivors from the late Laconia. A rescued RAF officer even took over the signal light to tell the American plane that there were women and children aboard. It made no difference and the bombs came down anyway, killing several of the survivors.

Air attack on U-156
This would have been tragedy enough, but that was still not the end of it. The B-24 returned to base, reloaded and still returned to attack the submarine again. More survivors were killed and the U-Boat was further damaged. Captain Hartenstein finally had no choice but to return the survivors to their lifeboats and abandon them so that he could submerge his boat to escape the Allied air attack. We know for a fact that the pilot of that B-24 had seen and understood the messages being flashed to him from the U-156 but he had been ordered to attack anyway because his superiors had decided that eliminating the danger of the submarine was more important than saving the lives of the people being rescued. It was a terrible affair and because of that the war in the Atlantic became even more cruel as the German Naval High Command ordered all their submarines that they were never again to risk themselves by trying to help survivors.

Regia Marina submarine Cappellini
The central role of the Italians in this incident has not always been well explained. The brutal treatment they endured prior to the attack is not always mentioned in most histories. Also, were it not for the presence of the Italian troops none of the survivors would have been saved. Hartenstein reported that it was his discovery of so many Italian prisoners of war that prompted him to engage in rescue operations. He feared a rift might develop between Rome and Berlin if it became known that so many Italian soldiers had been left to their fate by a German attack (which is not to say of course that he did not also have compassion for the other people). It is also often forgotten that the other two German U-Boats and the Italian submarine Comandante Cappellini under the command of Captain Marco Revedin were with the U-156, also carrying survivors and were also attacked by the American aircraft and forced to abandon the effort and escape as well. Of course the Royal Italian Navy made every effort to at least save the lives of their own men. Thankfully, most of those not killed in the American air attack were later picked up by the French navy and transported to Africa. It is also worth remembering that Hitler would have preferred to have let all of the survivors die so as not to endanger his military operations against Cape Town. Second to that he preferred to have rescued only the Italians and no one else but letting them all die would have been his first choice. Thankfully, Hartenstein did not wait for instructions and began the rescue effort on his own.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Princess Giovanna of Italy, Last Queen of Bulgaria

The remarkable woman who would be the last Tsaritsa of Bulgaria was born HRH Princess Giovanna Elisabetta Antonia Romana Maria of Italy in Rome on November 13, 1907 to HM King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy and Queen Elena of Montenegro. She was their third daughter and fourth child, the next to the youngest. If there was one constant in the upbringing of all the princes and princesses of the House of Savoy, going all the way back to the former Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, it was that the very long history of the dynasty and their duty to further the advancement of the Royal Family was stressed above all things. From her earliest days there was never any doubt that she would be married into a foreign royal family to secure or extend the influence of the House of Savoy and one area which had held Italian interest, practically since the Kingdom was born, was the Balkans. As a child Princess Giovanna was known for being bright, intelligent, compassionate and for her love of music (she played the cello) but all the time she knew it was her destiny to marry a foreign monarch or royal heir for the benefit of Italy and her Royal House.

Princess Giovanna spent much of her youth at the Villa Savoia, kept under the watchful eye of a notoriously strict governess. The princess was given an impressive education, learning history, literature, French, English and learning to play the piano. All the royal children were quite beloved in Italy and by Italians around the world. A much commented on incident was in 1923 when Princess Giovanna and her sister Princess Mafalda came down with typhoid and the daily reports on their condition were as greatly in demand by Italian-American newspapers in the United States as those in Italy itself. She grew up to be a remarkably compassionate and dutiful young princess and when it came time to find a suitable husband for her, Italian eyes fell on Bulgaria. There had been other possibilities of course. Some suggested the son of the Crown Prince of Bavaria, others one of the Hapsburg Archdukes and for those who could not abide foreigners there was the Marquis de Pinedo, a famous Italian aviator of daring reputation. He died in 1933 in a crash though and again and again attention returned to Bulgaria where a marriage might serve the House of Savoy and the Kingdom of Italy well in the future.

Princess Giovanna and the Bulgarian Tsar Boris III first met in 1927 when the Tsar was touring Europe along with his brother Prince Kyril. According to Princess Giovanna the Bulgarian Tsar barely noticed her on this first occasion but the subject of marriage was later broached between Prince Kyril and the Princess’ sister Princess Mafalda. A few years later, on January 8, 1930, the two met again when they each attended the wedding of Princess Maria Jose of Belgium to Princess Giovanna’s brother Crown Prince Umberto of Italy. A marriage of Italian and Bulgarian royalty was nothing new, Boris’ father, Tsar Ferdinand, had married a princess of the former royal houses of Parma and the Two-Sicilies, however, just as with that marriage, religion was to be a source of difficulty for the staunchly Orthodox Bulgars and the staunchly Catholic Italians. Only recently the Kingdom of Italy and the Roman Catholic Church had been reconciled and the Church was adamant that Tsar Boris III had to agree that any future children be raised in the Catholic faith before they would accept a marriage between him and Princess Giovanna. This was a touchy subject. Boris III himself was supposed to have been a Catholic but, of course, the Bulgarians would have had none of that and he became Orthodox. Pope Pius XI no doubt worried that the same thing would happen again. Once again, a Bulgarian Tsar promised the Pope to raise any future children as Catholics in order to marry an Italian princess (though he refused to sign a contract to that effect) and, again, the Pope agreed and the marriage date was set.

The negotiations had been difficult and at one point talks broke off entirely with Boris III declaring that he would remain a bachelor if he could not marry his beloved Princess Giovanna. The Princess likewise vowed to renounce her royal life and enter a convent if she could not marry the Tsar. So, finally, everything was worked out. The Tsar of Bulgaria and the Princess of Italy were married at the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi on October 25, 1930 amidst a great deal of public celebration. Wedding dresses were simple and conservative and no jewelry was worn but it was still a glittering affair with some 50 royal princes in attendance and, never being one to miss the spotlight, a typically puffed-up Mussolini. After that, the couple departed Italy on the Bulgarian liner “Tsar Ferdinand I” and Giovanna stepped ashore on Bulgarian soil at Burgas. The couple then traveled by train to Sofia where a second, Orthodox, wedding ceremony was held at the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral where Giovanna took the Bulgarian form of her name and was presented to the public as Tsaritsa Ioanna of Bulgaria.

The new Tsaritsa was a very down-to-earth wife, astonishing the world when she revealed that personally cooked meals for herself and her husband, saying how the Tsar loved home cooking and that, “The secret of domestic happiness is to be found in the kitchen”. In 1933 the Tsaritsa gave birth to the couple’s first child, Princess Marie-Louise, and despite the promise Boris III had made to the Vatican, she was, as expected, immediately baptized into the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The Pope was rather upset at what he called “Balkan tricks” but nonetheless refrained from excommunicating the Italian Tsaritsa who remained a devoted Catholic throughout her life but always extremely reverent and respectful toward the Orthodox faith of her new country. In 1937 there were huge public celebrations, complete with torchlight celebrations, in honor of the birth of an heir to the throne, Prince Simeon. However, the happy mood of the Royal Family could not endure for long as the war clouds continued to gather across Europe. When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war and for the second time in the 20th Century the world came apart in a torrent of death and destruction.

Like the rest of her family, Tsaritsa Ioanna hoped to stay out of World War II though she was naturally concerned about her native Kingdom of Italy (where her relatives likewise hoped to stay out of the conflict). Tsar Boris III is supposed to have said that his wife was pro-Italian, his ministers were pro-German and his people were pro-Russian while he was entirely neutral. However, when Axis troops conquered Yugoslavia and Greece with pro-Nazi regimes put in place in Hungary and Romania there was no hope for Bulgaria to remain totally uninvolved. Under great pressure the Tsar agreed to a limited sort of alliance with the main Axis partners of Germany, Italy and Japan. However, the Tsar and Tsaritsa of Bulgaria were anything but sympathetic to Hitler. On the contrary, they were horrified by his actions and refused to take part in any of his schemes. Risking the wrath of the dictator who ruled most of Europe, they refused to cooperate in the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to Nazi Germany -where they would ultimately been massacred. Tsaritsa Ioanna intervened herself to obtain visas for Bulgarian Jews to escape the danger of Europe to the safety of Argentina.

Hitler was furious at how uncooperative the Bulgarian Royal Family was and when the Tsar suddenly fell ill and died in 1943 after a visit with Hitler (in which the Fuhrer flew into a rage when the Tsar refused to participate in his invasion of Russia) many suspected the Nazi leader of having the Tsar poisoned. Tsaritsa Ioanna was grief-stricken and all the more concerned to see her 6-year-old son proclaimed Tsar Simeon II of Bulgaria with three regents to act for him. If his father had been murdered, what fate might be in store for his son if they aroused the anger of the Nazis? However, the ultimate threat was not to come from Germany. The Nazis lost their war and despite Bulgaria not being involved in the invasion of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria was still invaded by the Red Army and doomed to become a Soviet satellite-state. In 1945 Bulgaria was taken over by the Communists, the three regents were murdered and a referendum was staged in order to justify the abolition of the monarchy. With only 24 hours given to them, Tsaritsa Ioanna gathered her children and fled into exile, first with her father, King Vittorio Emanuele III in Egypt and then finally to Spain where Generalissimo Francisco Franco was welcoming to any victims of communist aggression. Later she moved to Portugal to be near her exiled brother King Umberto II of Italy. However, she never ceased to be a Bulgarian queen, having a Bulgarian Orthodox chapel built alongside her residence.

The communists had destroyed the grave of Tsar Boris III but when the Soviet Union collapsed and the “Iron Curtain” came down, Tsaritsa Ioanna returned to Bulgaria in 1993 to reinter the heart of her beloved husband, which had been buried separately and was thus spared from the communist degradation in 1954. It was her last trip to her adopted homeland and she was very warmly welcomed by the Bulgarian people who never forgot the kindness and compassion she had always displayed toward them. She died in Portugal on February 26, 2000 at the age of 92 and was buried in Italy at the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi where she had first married her beloved husband. Throughout her life she had displayed great humanity, heroic compassion, risking her own life to save others and was always the most devoted wife and mother as well as queen. Her memory deserves to be honored and she will always be one of the brightest stars in the history of the Bulgarian monarchy and the Italian House of Savoy.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Prince Emanuele Filiberto Has Surgery

Some troubling news to report from Italy, it seems that the threat of cancer is back again for HRH Prince Emanuele Filiberto of Venice and Piedmont. On Tuesday the eldest son of the last Crown Prince of Italy informed his internet followers that the “Evil has returned. I am in Geneva because tomorrow morning I am working again…This too will pass…” and added, “Thanks for all your messages…give me strength…” The Prince had a tumor removed from his nasal septum last November and thought he was cancer-free but it seems to have returned. Another surgery was scheduled for Thursday. Prince Emanuele Filiberto was the 2009 winner of the Italian version of “Dancing with the Stars” and currently has his own reality show, which (while derided by some) has made him the more well known of the two Italian claimants to the royal legacy of the House of Savoy. Although he has not campaigned for the restoration of the monarchy (being obliged to stay out of Italian politics) he has stated publicly that he considers monarchy a better system than republicanism because of the unity and impartiality that only monarchs can provide. We wish the Prince and the Italian Royal Family all the best and that he has a safe and speedy recovery.

Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia: operazione in corso a Ginevra, l'annuncio via Twitter
"Ecco è arrivato il momento... buonagiornata a tutti, spero potervi dare notizie al più presto... " con questo messaggio di circa un ora fa il pincipe tramite twitter informa i suoi followers dell'operazione al naso in corso in questi istanti in ospedale a Ginevra. "Emanuele è stato operato quattro mesi fa per un tumore al setto nasale ma il male è riapparso in più focolai", spiega all'ANSA il manager del principe, Ricky Palazzolo.
Poi - conclude - aspetteremo fiduciosi la nuova biopsia".

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Italian Victory at Castelorizzo

During a period in World War II when the British, despite the great power of the Royal Navy, were having a great deal of trouble disrupting Italian supply lines across the Mediterranean to North Africa which Admiral Luigi Biancheri had kept open, a potential 'easy target' was sought out. Deprived of success in the Central Mediterranean, the British naval commander, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, decided to focus on the eastern side of the sea and ordered an attack on the lightly defended Italian island of Castelorizzo. Located just off the Turkish coast, between Rhodes and Cyprus, the British planned to use Castelorizzo as a launching platform for a more significant attack on the Italian naval base at Leros, one of the most strategically vital bases in the Aegean Sea. Wishing to take no chances after previous disappointments, Admiral Cunningham dispatched an entire cruiser division to the island which put ashore 500 elite British commandos to seize the island, expecting no real trouble from the handful of sailors and policemen who constituted the only Italian resistance on Castelorizzo.

However, the Italian sailors resisted fiercely, immediately radioed for assistance and withdrew to the most easily defended areas of the island and kept up their resistance, continuing to hold out against the British commandos throughout the day of February 25, 1941. They had to hold out alone all day before help arrived after nightfall in the form of a few Italian destroyers and torpedo boats carrying 240 infantry from the Italian garrison at Rhodes. The torpedo boats were under the command of Captain Francesco Mimbelli (who would go on to more fame in action in the Black Sea against the Russians). The Regia Aeronautica preceded the landing, bombing the harbor and British positions, inflicting enough damage that one warship was forced to recall her marines and retreat. This deprived the commandos of their radio link with Alexandria, Egypt. It also prevented additional British troops from landing as the air attacks threw the Royal Navy into a panic, being under attack from the air and unable to locate the small flotilla of Italian warships they knew were closing in on them.

The Italian ships landed their troops and began covering the infantry by shelling British positions ashore. Although they were outnumbered by more than two-to-one the Italian troops fought their way forward against the British commandos, seizing key positions and finally surrounding the British force. Without air or naval support the British knew their operation was doomed and those forces still able to reach their ships retreated. The Italians continued to close in and the fighting raged on for two days before the British accepted defeat and surrendered. The British fleet sailed back to Egypt after making one last, fruitless sweep in which they failed to locate or destroy a single Italian vessel.

Admiral Cunningham was amazed at how the Italians, whom British propaganda always derided, had, “reacted with utmost vigor and enterprise” and had made a “rotten business” of his attempt to takeover the island. Many of the British commanders had foolishly believed their own propaganda, that the Italians were sub-standard fighters and the action at Castelorizzo shocked them to their senses as they witnessed first-hand the skill and tenacity of Italian troops and the Regia Marina. This sharp battle put a permanent end to any hope of the British to seize control of the Dodecanese Islands from Italy and the islands remained in Italian hands until the 1943 armistice after which the Kingdom of Italy joined the Allies in declaring war on Nazi Germany.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Happy Birthday

It was today in 1969 that HRH Princess Clotilde of Savoy, Princess of Piedmont and Venice, wife of Prince Emanuele Filiberto was born in Levallois-Perret, Hauts-de-Seine, France.