Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Marshal of the Air Italo Balbo

Italo Balbo is, in many ways, evocative of the Italian story as a whole during the final decades of the Kingdom of Italy and the Fascist era. He started his life as a restless revolutionary and a radical republican; an early and rough Blackshirt beloved of Mussolini. At the peak of his career he became a zealous and talented empire-builder, a bringer of civilization and finally he became an ardent royalist, disillusioned with the Fascist regime and often at odds with Mussolini. Italo Balbo was born on June 6, 1896 in Ferrara and starting at a very young age was drawn to radical politics, nationalism and a life of adventure. He was only fourteen he went to Albania with a group of volunteers led by Ricciotti Garibaldi (son of Giuseppe Garibaldi) to fight in a rebellion against the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. As a young man he supported Italian participation in World War I on the side of the Allies and when Italy did enter the war he enlisted in the Royal Army. Balbo first served as an officer candidate in the Alpini Battalion “Val Fella” before beginning training with the air service.

After the disastrous battle of Caporetto, Balbo returned to the front, serving in another Alpini Battalion where he took command of the assault platoon. He courage in the face of the enemy eventually earned him one bronze and two silver medals for military valor as well as promotion to captain before the war ended. He studied in Florence after the war and he wrote a paper on “the economic and social thought of Giuseppe Mazzini”. He was, obviously, a republican at this stage but came to detest the socialists and the labor and trade unions they controlled because of their disorder and disrupting of the Italian economy and society. He was working as a bank clerk back in his home town when, in 1921, he became one of the first members of the National Fascist Party. He rose to be secretary of the Ferrara branch of the Fascist party and soon organized his own squad of Blackshirts which he led in raids on local socialist and communist groups as well as helping to break up strikes and protests organized by Marxists in the area. Balbo soon became known as one of the most active and forceful leaders in the Fascist movement.

Balbo, second from left, with Fascist leaders
Like many of the early squadristi, Balbo had been a republican, saw himself as a revolutionary and envisioned a Fascist state in which local bosses like himself would hold more power rather than a central dictator. Obviously, this was not the vision of Mussolini who had started to move his party more to the right as the socialists and communists began to drive more support in their direction. This was also part of a deliberate effort by Mussolini to broaden his base of support beyond the radical fringe and become more than just republican revolutionaries who disagreed with the socialists almost only on their attachment to internationalism and denigration of patriotism. Unity was particularly sought with the older nationalists who were right-wing and staunchly monarchist. Yet, because Balbo had become such a star in the Fascist Party, he was chosen for a prominent leadership position. When Mussolini (from the safety of his office in Milan) planned the Blackshirt march on Rome in 1922, Italo Balbo was one of the “Quadrumvirs” chosen to lead it. However, he would serve alongside more conservative Fascists such as Cesare De Vecchi and General Emilio De Bono. The presence of Michele Bianchi, a socialist turned syndicalist, helped balance out the leadership and, Mussolini hoped, appeal to the widest array of Italians possible.

The march, of course, turned out to be little more than a parade as political maneuvering had already secured the premiership for Mussolini before his Blackshirts ever entered Rome, however, Italo Balbo had secured his place as one the leading members of the Fascist hierarchy and was appointed one of the first members of the Fascist Grand Council in 1923. The following year he was named commander of the Blackshirt militia and in 1925 was made Undersecretary for National Economy. His real significance, however, came in 1926 when he was made Secretary of State for Air. Mussolini wanted to put a renewed emphasis on Italian aviation and Balbo was the man who would be in charge of this project. Balbo learned how to fly himself and set to work organizing what became the Regia Aeronautica. By 1928 he had been promoted to General of the Air Force, later Minister of the Air Force and, eventually, Marshal of the Air. Aside from organizing the military air branch, Balbo also encouraged exploration and endurance flights that would generate publicity for the air force, encourage more Italians to take an interest in aviation and raise the profile of Italy in the skies. As part of this campaign, Balbo himself led a trans-Atlantic flight in 1930 from Italy to Brazil and in 1933 all the way to Chicago where he was received with great fanfare and media attention. President Roosevelt even decorated him with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Italo Balbo had risen to become an international celebrity and many in the Fascist ranks began to speak of him as the future successor of Benito Mussolini. However, Balbo and Mussolini did not always agree on everything and the issues they disagreed on seemed to be growing more numerous. When, in 1933, Balbo was appointed Governor-General of Libya many viewed it as an effort to “exile” him from Rome. It was also a formidable mission he was tasked with. Balbo came to Libya with the expectation that he would make it a model colony, demonstrating Fascist efficiency and truly turning the place into the “fourth shore” of Italy. Although many today would not like to admit it, Balbo did essentially that. Expansion and development increased to such an extent that Balbo became known as the “Father of Libya” and this was largely true inasmuch that Libya became modern and up-to-date for the first time in history. Mussolini, for a time, hoped that Italy might gain the remains of the former German colony of Cameroon for an Italian Cameroon that would be linked by a land bride to Libya and give Italy an Atlantic port. With the frenzy of new roads, buildings, settlements and harbor facilities going up in Libya, anything seemed possible.

When international tensions began growing over the threat of renewing the war in Abyssinia, Marshal Balbo began making plans for an invasion from his colony into Egypt-Sudan. If Britain decided to go to war with Italy over Abyssinia, or close the Suez Canal to Italian troop transports, Balbo wanted to lead the attack to force the vital chokepoint open. Ultimately, Britain did not intervene on behalf of Ethiopia but they did reinforce their military presence in the Mediterranean, however, there is reason to believe that had such a conflict occurred, Italy would have had a legitimate chance of success. At the height of the crisis, Balbo deployed his troops along the Egyptian border and due to the poor state of British military intelligence, they had no idea it happened and Balbo would have been in a perfect position to have launched an attack on Egypt and take the British forces completely by surprise. Britain only became aware of it all via Rome itself when Mussolini rejected the planned operation, which turned out to be unnecessary in any event.

Although it was hardly seen as a promotion, by being posted to Libya, Marshal Balbo actually had far greater autonomy than he would have otherwise enjoyed and used his position to circumvent the normal military bureaucracy to create his own elite unit of Libyan paratroopers. Balbo himself, along with his pilots, undertook reconnaissance flights over Egypt and the Sudan to familiarize themselves with the area in the event of war between Britain and Italy in north Africa. He was determined to be prepared for any eventuality. However, Balbo was also aware enough of the true state of affairs to oppose Italian involvement in World War II. In fact, he had come a long way from his days as a blackshirt leader and was increasingly conservative, realistic and even royalist. Balbo was the only leading member of the Fascist Party to openly oppose the racial laws aimed against the Jewish community and the only one to publicly denounce the Axis alliance with Adolf Hitler. As Italy moved closer and closer toward the prospect of world war alongside Nazi Germany, Balbo reversed his earlier republicanism and was grateful the monarchy had been preserved and hoped that the King would intervene to stop Mussolini from taking the country to war.

Unfortunately, while the increased attachment to the monarchy was laudable, this was an all too common response of many in the Fascist hierarchy; men who had previously opposed the King and helped Mussolini gain dictatorial power suddenly demanding that the King reassert himself, taking all the political risk, to bail them out of a situation of their own making and to take actions against Mussolini that they were unwilling to take themselves. Air Marshal Balbo, to his credit, did more than most in the Fascist ranks to express his displeasure (saying that the alliance would result in the Italians being totally subservient to the Germans) but nonetheless, acceded to the policies of the government and determined to do his duty as best he could. Part of this included an intricate plan for the elimination of British armored forces in Egypt through the use of diversionary attacks from the air and a fast moving motorized column. However, Balbo would not live to see any of his plans carried out. When Italy joined the war in 1940, Balbo became supreme military commander of Italian north African forces and began planning the invasion of Egypt. Unfortunately, while flying into Tobruk on June 28, just after a British air raid, his plane was mistakenly shot down by Italian anti-aircraft batteries.

Some, then and now, believe that Mussolini set up the whole thing to get rid of Air Marshal Balbo because of his opposition to Fascist policies. However, there is no evidence to back that up and it certainly would not have looked good for Mussolini as such an action would have contradicted his boast that “Mussolini is always right” considering that he had earlier considered Balbo to be his successor as Duce. Balbo was buried near Tripoli but his body was moved to Italy in 1970 after the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi threatened to desecrate the bodies of all Italians buried in Libyan soil.

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