Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Savoyard Crusade

Pope Urban V
Today is the feast of Blessed Urban V, one of the “Avignon Popes” and an ardent supporter of the crusades against the Islamic Ottoman Empire. It was Pope Urban V who called for what would become known to history as the “Savoyard Crusade” in 1363 though it would not really get started until 1366. The original leaders of this crusade were supposed to be the kings of France and Cyprus but neither of them actually ended up going so the name for the whole adventure comes from the man who did actually lead the fight, the “Green Count” Amedeo VI of Savoy, one of the forefathers of the Italian Royal Family and one of the most celebrated figures in the long history of the House of Savoy. King Louis I of Hungary was also persuaded to participate, fresh off of a victory over the Bulgars, even taking a son of the Czar of Bulgaria prisoner. Count Amedeo VI assembled his army, mostly from his own lands, while Urban V had difficulties finding transport for them as the Venetians preferred to trade with the Muslims rather than make war on them. Promised support from the German Emperor likewise never materialized.

Count Amedeo made it to Venice, though his funds from the Pope were cut back because he would not be going to the Holy Land itself (though Urban V still blessed the enterprise), this change did help persuade the Venetians to be more cooperative in transporting the Savoyard crusaders and on June 21, 1366 the small army set sail down the Adriatic. Political complications boiled the entire time with the King of Hungary not moving to assist as he had promised and with tensions between the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor John V (a first cousin of Count Amedeo VI) over the papal demand that the Emperor reunite with the Catholic Church in exchange for Latin assistance to his besieged empire. Nonetheless, Count Amedeo forged ahead into the Turkish waters of the Dardanelles, joined by the Emperor’s son-in-law and the Patriarch of Constantinople with a contingent of soldiers. The Emperor himself was, at the time, being held prisoner by the Bulgarians.

On August 22 the Savoyard crusaders landed and made their initial attack on the shores of the Gallipoli peninsula. The Italian soldiers attacked the walls and must have intimidated the Turkish defenders for they fled during the night, leaving the local populace to open the gates and welcome in their Christian liberators. Count Amedeo worked feverishly to establish new garrisons for the important positions such as the key fortresses and the entrance to the straits. As the Turks continued to retreat, the Savoyard knights harried them in pursuit, driving them from the peninsula. Early in September they reached the city of Constantinople itself, most of them staying with their fellow-Italians in the Genoese quarter, some in the famous Galata Tower itself (which was in the Venetian quarter). While in Constantinople, the “Green Count” also sent messengers to make contact with his trapped cousin the Byzantine Emperor John V. Of course, the Emperor asked Amedeo VI to come quickly to his rescue.

The “Green Count” had no papal authorization to make war on the Bulgarians but he could hardly ignore the request for help from his cousin and the Byzantine Empress promised sufficient funding for the expedition to rescue her embattled husband. The “Green Count” made his decision and, leaving loyal Italian troops behind to hold their position in Constantinople, set out in early October across the Black Sea to Bulgaria to find the Emperor. His small army finally landed though exactly where and whether certain cities taken resisted or not is still debated by historians. One fortress that resisted fiercely was Nesebar (or Mesembria) which refused to surrender, forcing the Savoyard troops to take heavy casualties storming the citadel. Then, as was customary at the time, the defenders were put to the sword and the city pillaged. Several more towns were captured afterward until the Savoyard troops had secured control of the Gulf of Burgas.

The "Green Count" Amedeo VI
Throughout the rest of October, November and into December cities were taken, raids were launched and all the while messengers tried to arrange the safe return of the Emperor with the local Bulgarian authorities. Finally, in late January the following year, Emperor John V was delivered to the “Green Count” unharmed. By the time the Savoyard troops returned to Constantinople, after the Emperor had gone ahead of them, a lavish ceremony was prepared to welcome them with the assembled crowd shouting, “Long live the count of Savoy, who had delivered Greece from the Turks and the Emperor, our lord, from the hands of the Emperor of Bulgaria!” With all of that out of the way, the “Green Count” wanted nothing more than to get back to his original purpose of making war on the Islamic hordes. This he did but he had, by this time, a greatly depleted force from what he had started out with.

There were more battles against the Turks but as often defensive as opposed to offensive ones and ultimately the Savoyard crusaders were mostly fighting for the means to travel back to Italy. The “Green Count” did his Christian duty off the battlefield as well by trying to patch-up the East-West Schism of Christianity, naturally to no avail. He had brought along a Latin Patriarch of Constantinople but, to avoid offending the Greeks, had put him up in Gallipoli rather than the city of Constantine itself. He was not to stay however as the Latin Patriarch, Paul, set sail with the rest of the Savoyard crusaders when the left in June of 1367, handing their conquered territories over to the Byzantines. The following month the “Green Count” and his remaining crusaders arrived back on Italian shores in Venice to great acclaim.

Count Amedeo VI and his men had fought many great battles and the history reads better than any fictional adventure, fighting heathen armies, conquering fortresses, rescuing an emperor but, in the end, the fruits of their victory did not last. The count had left the city of Emona in the hands of his natural son, Prince Antonio, who was tricked into an ambush and ending up dying in a Bulgarian prison. Gallipoli was held by Christian forces for the next ten years until it was handed over to the Turks by the son of Emperor John V in return for Turkish support against his own father. Such was the way of the Byzantines.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Italy Declares War on America

Any doubt as to the outcome of World War II was settled with the dawn attack by the Japanese on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii which brought the United States into the war. An American declaration of war against the Empire of Japan was swiftly passed by Congress and soon after the German Reich and the Kingdom of Italy joined their Japanese ally by declaring war on the United States. The reasons for this have been widely discussed in regards to Germany. Hitler himself gave a lengthy explanation as to why his was declaring war on the United States and historians since have both questioned this action and offered various theories to explain it, some taking into account and others discounting what Hitler had to say on the matter. Relatively few, in comparison, have questioned the Italian declaration of war, mostly due to the very successful Allied propaganda campaign to portray Italy as the junior partner in the Axis pact that simply followed wherever Germany led. This is, of course, not true and there was a clear sequence of historical events which culminated in war between Italy and America.

In the first place, one must state at the outset that although the Italian government acted on its own, there is no doubt that the German decision to join Japan in going to war against the Americans was a determinative factor in Italy doing the same. Italy did not go to war with the United States only because Germany was doing the same but it is certainly true that it would have been unthinkable for Italy to declare war without Germany. Of course, the actions of Japan instigated the decision but that likewise did not compel Italy to take action. The Axis pact was a defensive alliance and, regardless of the many mitigating circumstances, it was the Japanese who had initiated hostile action against the United States. Japan had also maintained its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and did not join Germany and Italy in their ‘crusade against Bolshevism’ which had started earlier in 1941. In fact, given how close the Axis forces in Europe came to winning against the Russians, if the Japanese had joined in the war and thus forced the Soviets to divide their forces to defend two fronts separated by vast distances, the Soviet Union might well have been swiftly and totally defeated. In any event, the salient point is that Italy was not bound to support Japan in her war against America nor did Italy owe Japan any special favors in this regard.

The very idea of hostilities between Italy and the United States would have struck a great many people as absurd, aside from the fact that Italy would be hopelessly outmatched in any conflict between the two powers. Italians and Americans generally had a high opinion of each other. They had fought side by side in the First World War, Americans were very fond of Italian culture, Giuseppe Garibaldi had been very popular in the United States, Italians had a long history in America and even into the early days of the Fascist regime many Americans found much to admire about Italy. When Air Marshal Balbo made his famous trans-Atlantic flight to the United States he was given a rapturous welcome with a ticker-tape parade in New York City. With Italian-Americans making up a significant part of the population, many Italians had friends and family in the United States and Mussolini himself, while despising President Roosevelt and his administration, was quite fond of the American people. As far as the ordinary people were concerned, neither the Italians nor the Americans had any desire to fight each other. However, relations between their governments became increasingly tense.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while claiming neutrality in the conflicts abroad, was never shy about voicing his opinion about who he thought was right and wrong and this often offended foreign sensibilities, particularly on the part of Mussolini. The Duce was very upset when FDR referred to the Italian entry into World War II against France and Britain, but speaking specifically of France, as Italy stabbing its neighbor in the back, ignoring all the events that preceded and precipitated the declaration of war. In 1940 President Roosevelt again spoke against Mussolini and the Italian war effort by pointing out the dangers of an extended conflict and warning of the terrible repercussions Italy would face if the war were widened to the Americas. This was, of course, intended for the consumption of the American public to impress upon them the notion that America was under threat from the conflict raging in Europe. Mussolini, however, was very offended by it, noting that he had tried to broker a peace when the conflict broke out but had been rejected by Britain and France and that positively no one had given any thought at all to the silly idea of expanding the war into the Americas.

The Duce responded soon after in early 1941 with the statement that, “Italy’s non-belligerency has effectively ensured peace for two hundred millions of men, but, notwithstanding, Italian merchant traffic is subjected to a constant surveillance that is vexatious and harmful. As far as I know, Germany is opposed to a further expansion of the conflict, and Italy likewise. We must learn whether this is also the Franco-British aim. The only European nation that dominates a large part of the world and possesses a monopoly on many basic raw materials is Great Britain. Italy has no programs of that kind. As to the repercussions which an extension of the war fronts might have on the three Americas, I call attention to the fact that Italy has never concerned itself with the relations of the American republics, with each other, or with the United States - thereby respecting the Monroe Doctrine. And, one might therefore ask for reciprocity in regard to European affairs.” In other words, he was telling Roosevelt that he was being needlessly paranoid and that since he didn’t interfere with America, FDR should not interfere with Europe, and certainly not Italy.

Mussolini was absolutely right as far as the actions of the FDR administration were concerned. FDR, while claiming neutrality, never claimed to be impartial at all. U.S. forces were watching Italian merchant ships and informing the British of their movements so that these ships could be sunk. He was aiding the Allied war effort in every way possible with lines of credit, supplies and war materials of every kind as he endeavored to make the United States, as he put it, the “arsenal of democracy”. He pushed neutrality as far as it would go and then pushed it even further, well beyond the breaking point. Tensions between the United States and Italy escalated drastically in February of 1941 when President Roosevelt went beyond surveillance and ordered the seizure of all Italian merchant ships within reach of American authorities. When word of this order got out, most of the Italian merchant sailors sunk their own ships in order to keep them out of American hands but Mussolini was positively enraged by such a provocation by a supposedly neutral country.

Even in the United States, where, prior to Pearl Harbor, an 86% majority opposed intervening in World War II, many condemned the seizure of Italian ships as a criminal act. Not only Republicans but some of his fellow Democrats accused Roosevelt of purposely trying to provoke Italy into an act of war. Mussolini was livid, saying that, “Illusion and lying are the basis of American interventionism - illusion that the United States is still a democracy, when instead it is a political and financial oligarchy dominated by Jews, through a personal form of dictatorship. The lie is that the Axis powers, after they finish Great Britain, want to attack America.” Yet, his rage was still directed at the Roosevelt administration and not the United States as a whole. The Duce said, “I understand how the American people, in their despair and confusion caused by the Depression, looked longingly to this man (FDR) for help, because of all the attractive, if baseless promises he made. Now, the only way he knows to make good on those assurances is to spill the blood of innocent peoples on behalf of a war-stimulated economy.” What is ironic is that American proponents of intervention were saying exactly the same thing about the career of Mussolini in Italy.

As tensions grew even worse, with American naval forces alerting the Royal Navy to the location of Axis submarines in the Atlantic and finally even openly attacking several German U-Boats, Mussolini still expressed no animosity for the American people while making no secret of the level to which he despised President Roosevelt. The American public, he often said, were to be pitied rather than hated for having been hoodwinked by Roosevelt and his Wall Street cronies. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Duce needed no prompting to join the other Axis powers in this expansion of the conflict. As far as he was concerned, Italy had her own reasons and justifications for doing so. The hope, of course, was that American military strength would be divided and mostly concentrated on smashing the Japanese first. Hopefully, by the time Japan was defeated, Germany and Italy would have beaten the Russians and forced the British to either make peace or surrender. On December 11, 1941 Mussolini appeared on the balcony overlooking the Piazza Venezia in Rome, flanked by the ambassadors of the German Reich and the Empire of Japan to announce the formal declaration of war by the Kingdom of Italy against the United States of America. He said to the crowd:

“This is another day of solemn decision in Italy’s history and of memorable events destined to give a new course to the history of continents. The powers of the steel pact, Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany, ever closely linked, participate from today on the side of heroic Japan against the United States of America. The Tripartite Pact becomes a military alliance which draws around its colors 250,000,000 men determined to do all in order to win.
Neither the Axis nor Japan wanted an extension of the conflict. One man, one man only, a real tyrannical democrat, through a series of infinite provocations, betraying with a supreme fraud the population of his country, wanted the war and had prepared for it day by day with diabolical obstinacy.
The formidable blows that on the immense Pacific expanse have been already inflicted on American forces show how prepared are the soldiers of the Empire of the Rising Sun. I say to you, and you will understand, that it is a privilege to fight with them.
Today, the Tripartite Pact, with the plenitude of its forces and its moral and material resources, is a formidable instrument for the war and a certainty of victory. Tomorrow, the Tripartite Pact will become an instrument of just peace between the peoples.
Italians! Once more arise and be worthy of this historical hour! We shall win.”

With that, Italy and the United States were at war. For the Italian King-Emperor Vittorio Emanuele III, it was simply one more reason for his increasingly pessimistic mood. He was shocked and voiced his displeasure when he learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The last thing Italy needed was more enemies and war with the largest economic and industrial power on earth was a terrible prospect. However, when the Duce presented him with the declaration of war, he saw no alternative but to sign it. The Roosevelt administration had been grossly provocative and with German and Italian forces fighting side by side on every front, if the Americans and Germans fought then it was only a matter of time before the Italians would be involved anyway. He had been against any expansion of the war as well and could see no end to the conflict. His ardent hope was that, for the sake of the survival of western civilization, the two sides would make a negotiated peace. However, noble though it was, such was a forlorn hope. Hitler had offered Britain a peace (even if it meant terms detrimental to Italy) when the British prospects for victory were darkest and Churchill had declined. With the Soviet Union, the British Empire and now the United States all arrayed against them, victory was certain and the Allies would have no need to negotiate for peace.

The King-Emperor, faced with the fact of war, also hoped that at least the Japanese attacks in Asia might draw away British strength from the Mediterranean theater and, like most, assumed that American retaliation would fall first on Japan. Hitler and Mussolini alike were counting on this as well. Unfortunately for them, Roosevelt did the exact opposite and agreed with Churchill on a policy of “Germany first”. The war with Japan would be carried on as aggressively as possible but priority would be given to the European theater of operations, making Germany and Italy the primary targets. As it happened, the United States was able to bring sufficient forces to the land, sea and air to wage successful offensive operations on both sides of the world simultaneously. The Italian war effort was doomed and, looking back, one can say without much possibility of argument that the Axis powers as a whole were doomed as soon as the Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. The forces arrayed against them were simply overwhelming.

Finally, one thing that is noteworthy is that the Americans had almost exactly the same view of the Italians as Mussolini often expressed in regard to the American people. Even at the height of the conflict, the American people could never quite bring themselves to view the Italians the same way they viewed the Germans or the Japanese. It was simply impossible for most Americans to view most Italians as enemies. An example of this mentality can be seen in the American war film “Sahara” starring Humphrey Bogart, made during the war, being released in 1943. It tells the story of the crew of an American M3 Grant tank in North Africa that picks up an assortment of Allied troops as well as two Axis prisoners of war. The characters are meant to represent the different countries involved. Bogey, of course, represents the ideal American view of themselves and there are characters representing the French (a resistance fighter who loves wine and cheese), the British (very gallant and ready to bear any burden) and the British Empire (an African colonial soldier) and so on.

The two prisoners are a German pilot and an Italian infantryman. The way they are portrayed says much about American attitudes even during wartime. The German officer is perfectly evil, deceptive, arrogant and cruel, fanatically devoted to the Nazis and the war. The Italian soldier, however, is portrayed as a basically good guy who is on the wrong side. He’s a family man, sympathetic and kind-hearted, a Christian and an honorable man. In fact, the actor who portrayed the Italian soldier, J. Carrol Naish, gave such a touching performance that he was nominated for an Academy Award for it. One of his speeches is still regarded as one of the best of any American war film. It shows the extent to which Italo-American friendship extended so that, even when the two countries were at war, each viewed the only real enemy as the ruler of the opposing country and not the people themselves. Roosevelt and Mussolini clearly hated each other equally but for the Italian and American peoples, neither could ever really see the other as “the enemy”. Thankfully, the period of conflict between the two countries would be an isolated episode in a long history of peace and friendship.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

King Carlo Emanuele IV of Piedmont-Sardinia

A monarch with a tragic but immensely gallant personal story was Carlo Emanuele IV. He was born Prince of Piedmont Carlo Emanuele Ferdinando Maria di Savoia at the Royal Palace in Turin on May 24, 1751, the first-born son of the Duke of Savoy, later King Vittorio Amadeo III and his Queen consort the Infanta Maria Antoinetta of Spain. Even in his youth he had many trials to endure. He health was fragile, he was often unwell and was possibly epileptic. As usual, he was taught extensively of the very long and colorful history of the venerable House of Savoy. The stories of warrior princes and crusader knights must have seemed an impossibly difficult example to follow for the young Prince of Piedmont but he seized on the cases of those Savoy princes with a reputation for great faith and piety, such as Blessed Amadeo IX, as examples he could follow. Despite his physical frailties, or perhaps in part because of them, he grew into a refined, handsome young man of deeply sincere Catholic faith. He was well mannered, courtly and a man who felt his emotions intensely.

When his father became King of Piedmont-Sardinia, he immediately began political negotiations for an appropriate marriage for his son Carlo Emanuele. Through his sisters the House of Savoy had already forged marital ties with the French royal House of Bourbon and King Vittorio Amadeo III wanted to strengthen these ties even further. In 1775 he arranged a marriage for his son to Princess Marie Clotilde of France, the sister of King Louis XVI. She was sixteen and had been prepared for this and from the time she was very young had been taught to speak Italian in preparation for her marriage to the heir of the House of Savoy. The marriage, however, was not without some unkind gossip. At the French court of Versailles, where beauty and a glamorous image was paramount among the status-conscious aristocrats, Marie Clotilde did not fit in, being rather reserved, shy and somewhat overweight. Cruel French elites mocked her for her size, saying that the Prince of Piedmont was getting two brides instead of one. However, if she had any fears about the court in Turin, they were quickly dispelled. She was, like her husband, a devout Catholic of sincere faith and this mattered more to him than her dress size. When someone commented to him about his bride’s reputation for being overweight, Carlo Emanuele was not bothered, saying that he had, “more to worship”.

Marie Clotilde was accepted with sincere affection by her Italian husband and was warmly embraced into the family by her new sisters-in-law as well. The only misfortune, as far as King Vittorio Amadeo III was concerned, was that the couple were never able to have any children. Nonetheless, they had a happy marriage and both were equally devoted to the happiness of the other and loved each other completely and totally. Their religious faith was the backbone of their marriage and they lived a modest but contentedly fulfilled life together. Their shared faith was something they would need for beyond the borders of Piedmont, trouble was brewing as Revolution began to break out in France. The Savoy monarchy opened its doors to refugees from the Terror and the political turmoil and religious persecution in France affected Carlo Emanuele deeply. In 1794 he joined the Third Order of St Dominic as Carlo Emanuele of St Hyacinth. Meanwhile, his father had declared war on republican France in an act of monarchist solidarity but the small Piedmontese army was quickly defeated and forced to cede territory in the armistice of Cherasco.

On October 16, 1796 Vittorio Amadeo III died and his son succeeded him as King Carlo Emanuele IV of Piedmont-Sardinia. It was not an enviable position which he inherited. The economy was in ruins, the army was in shambles and French agents were doing everything possible to encourage republican revolution in the country. The new monarch had no romantic illusions about being king and referred to his crown as a “crown of thorns”. Under the leadership of Napoleon, France also made renewed efforts to dominate Piedmont and King Carlo Emanuele IV was powerless to resist. Eventually the French seized control of all of the ancestral lands of the Savoy, reducing their holdings to the island of Sardinia. The King and Queen went into exile in Tuscany but French troops soon set about the conquest of the entire Italian peninsula. The royal couple moved to Sardinia and remained there for six months. During that time the King enacted a number of reforms and opened his ports to the British fleet to give what support and cooperation he could to the Allied cause. At last Turin was liberated from the French by the Imperial Russian Army and the legitimist Czar Paul I invited King Carlo Emanuele IV to return to his capital city. However, upon landing, the King found that the Russians had departed and Piedmont was occupied by the Austrians who were not supportive of his return and hoped to retain control of as much of Italy as possible.

The Savoy King and Queen were forced to relocate to a new residence near Florence but were under constant threat, particularly as Napoleon gained more and more control over France. They had to move to various cities and in 1802, after coming down with typhus, Queen Maria Clotilde died and King Carlo Emanuele IV was inconsolable with grief at the loss of his beloved wife. Unable to carry on without her, at the Palazzo Colonna in Rome Carlo Emanuele IV abdicated his throne on June 4, 1802. His younger brother then became King Vittorio Emanuele I. The former monarch decided to devote the rest of his life to God and as he had long been a passionate supporter of the restoration of the Jesuits he joined the Society of Jesus as a novice in 1815, six months after the order was restored. He lived at the Jesuit house near the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale in Rome until his death on October 6, 1810. There was a small group far from Italy that marked his passing as well as his own former subjects. In 1807 he inherited the Jacobite claim to the thrones of England, Scotland, Ireland and France and was regarded by die-hard Jacobites as “King Charles IV”. He had been good friends with and a frequent guest of his cousin Prince Henry, Cardinal York, the last of the Stuart line but never made any public acknowledgement of this inheritance or any claim on the British throne.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Saga of the Submarine Leonardo da Vinci

At the beginning of World War II the Italian Regia Marina had the largest submarine fleet, by tonnage, in the world. Today, of course, the Italian contribution tends to be overshadowed by that of the German submarine campaign with Germany building many more boats during the war than any other power and being by far the most successful with them. The Italian submarines, however, did a great deal of damage to Allied shipping and operated in areas as far flung as the north and south Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and even in the Pacific. Of all the famous named associated with the Italian underwater war effort none are as famous as that of the submarine Leonardo da Vinci, the most successful Italian submarine of the war, and her most famous commander Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia who was the most successful non-German submarine captain of the entire war. The story of the Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most exciting in the history of submarine warfare and it fully deserves its status as the most famous Italian submarine of all time and one of the most famous boats of any country.

The Leonardo da Vinci was one of six Marconi-class submarines built at Monfalcone in 1938 and 1939. The Marconi-class were fairly large boats, 251ft long with 1,510 tons submerged displacement and a crew of 57 men. Armed with four bow and four stern torpedo tubes, one 3.9in deck gun and four 13.2mm machine guns (mainly for anti-aircraft defense) they had a range of nearly 3,000 miles, a top surface speed of just over 17 knots and so were formidable weapons capable of operating far from home. Of course, their size also came with drawbacks particularly in being slow to submerge. However, all of the Marconi-class proved successful boats and the Leonardo da Vinci was the most successful of all. She was launched in 1939 and when the Kingdom of Italy entered World War II in 1940 the Leonardo da Vinci, commanded by C.C. Ferdinando Calda, was ordered from her home port of Naples to Bordeaux in German-occupied France where the Italian submarine base for operations in the Atlantic was being established, BETASOM. Slipping past the British fortress at Gibraltar was always problematic and the submarine was spotted by two British destroyers but managed to crash dive and elude them.

On the way to Bordeaux the Leonardo da Vinci made several attacks on enemy vessels but none succeeded. One hunt was spoiled by attacking planes from a nearby British aircraft carrier, other targets were able to outrun the submarine and so on. However, the boat arrived finally at Bordeaux and after less than two months was dispatched again into the north Atlantic in December of 1940. Once again, the results were disappointing. A signal came in from HQ to join in an attack on a British convoy while off the coast of Ireland. Captain Calda quickly raced to join the attack but, due to a navigational error, their position was off and no target was to be found. No other targets were sighted during the patrol and on the way back Captain Calda launched an audacious attack on a British destroyer (vessels submarines generally try to avoid) but neither side got any joy. The destroyer and submarine escaped unscathed and Leonardo da Vinci returned to port. The first patrols of 1941 likewise proved frustrating. The first had to be abandoned because of a mechanical problem with one of the boat’s electric motors and the second, again off the Irish coast, ended with no enemy ships being sighted.

This, however, was fairly typical as the life of a submariner is mainly characterized by long periods of boring inactivity followed by the sudden explosion of mind-shattering danger. In June of 1941 the Leonardo da Vinci took up a new hunting ground in the very dangerous waters west of Gibraltar. Soon enough a British aircraft carrier was spotted but the efforts of her destroyer escorts prevented the Leonardo da Vinci from being able to make an attack. Finally, however, a victory was achieved toward the end of the month when a large oil tanker was attacked and sunk with four torpedo hits. At 8,030 tons this ship, the Auris, was quite a first prize indeed. In August the submarine was spotted and attacked by a Catalina flying boat. The Leonardo da Vinci survived and because Italian submarines tended to slow to dive necessity made them highly proficient anti-aircraft gunners and many Allied planes that attacked Italian submarines found them much more deadly prey than others. Later, other targets were sighted but powerful escorts always prevented an attack and the sub had to return to port with no victories for a lengthy period of refit and repairs.

While in port, the Leonardo da Vinci received a new commanding officer when Captain Caldo was replaced by C.C. Luigi Longanesi Cattani. When the boat finally put to sea again to hunt in the waters off the Azores there was, again, no successes and the sub had to return to port due to a rudder malfunction. As 1942 dawned the Leonardo da Vinci was dispatched to a new and distant hunting ground, off the Brazilian coast. It would take time to get there but the shipping route from New York City to Brazil was expected to be ripe with targets and less heavily defended than the north Atlantic shipping lanes. This time, such expectations were met and in February of 1942 the submarine scored two solid successes with the sinking of a Brazilian and a Latvian freighter for a combined total of 7,201 tons. After returning to home base, the Leonardo da Vinci was back in action off the Brazilian coast again in June and met with even greater success, sinking a Panamanian schooner, a Danish freighter, a Dutch freighter and a British collier for a combined total of 19,997 tons. The Italian submarine returned to port covered in glory and to receive some special modifications for a top secret assignment.

By 1942 the Kingdom of Italy was also at war with the United States and at the outset Mussolini asked for proposals on how to take the war to the Americans. One idea showed promise. During the war Italy had scored several astounding successes with the use of human-guided torpedoes. These were attached to the hull of a submarine which would approach an enemy port. Men in diving gear would then ride these “torpedoes” piggyback (hence their nickname of ‘pigs’) into the enemy harbor and, from underwater, attach mines to the hulls of enemy ships, sinking them when detonated. Italy had successfully carried out such daring attacks on heavily defended British ports such as Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt during the war. In 1942 it was decided to try such an attack on the vital American port of New York City. The damage from such an attack would not be too materially significant but it would have a devastating impact on morale for the United States and force the American military to inordinately redeploy forces to defend against another such attack that, in all likelihood, would never come. The operation was authorized and Leonardo da Vinci was modified to carry the special mini-subs to be taken to America’s largest city.

In August of 1942, the Leonardo da Vinci received a new commanding officer, one who would be its most famous; T.V. Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia. Born in Milan in 1912 of Genoese ancestry, Gazzana-Priaroggia had been executive officer under one of the greatest submarine commanders; Carlo Fecia di Cossato, and he would pay his old superior the highest complement by surpassing his record. Meanwhile, the Leonardo da Vinci was refitted and put through a number of tests for the attack on New York before her commander finally informed the high command that she was ready to undertake the mission. However, to his dismay, the high command replied that the mission would be postponed for at least a year. No one then knew why but evidence indicates that Mussolini was counting on an even more powerful weapon to be ready by that time: an atomic bomb. Of course, that never came about and so the submarine had its deck gun restored but left the fittings for the attachment of the mini-subs in place so that it would be ready to undertake the attack on New York at a later time. That mission, however, was to remain unfulfilled and is rarely ever remembered today. Still, there was plenty more for Leonardo da Vinci to do in the Battle of the Atlantic with her new captain at the helm.

Again, the initial patrol off Cape Verde was disappointing with no targets being sighted. The next, however, off Cape San Rocco, was a crushing success. In November, in quick succession the submarine torpedoed and sank a British freighter, a Greek freighter, an American ‘liberty ship’ and a Dutch freighter for a combined total of 26,042 tons of enemy shipping sent to the bottom. The Leonardo da Vinci had been so successful in fact that the Dutch freighter had to be sunk with the deck gun because the submarine had fired all of its torpedoes. The boat and crew returned to port to a hero’s welcome. When they put to sea again it would be 1943 and an initial cruise had to be aborted because of mechanical problems but once these were addressed they were soon back in action with orders to prey on Allied shipping from the South Atlantic to Indian Oceans. In March of 1943 they had their first success of the new year when they torpedoed the Canadian troopship the RMS Empress of Canada. This was by far the biggest target that the Leonardo da Vinci or her captain had ever sunk at 21,517 tons. However, it was a bitter-sweet victory as among the many Allied troops killed in the sinking were about 500 Italian prisoners-of-war. Only one Italian prisoner was able to be rescued so that, despite an enormous victory, no one on the submarine felt very cheerful.

Still, the war went on and a few days later the Leonardo da Vinci sank another British freighter before moving into the waters of the Indian Ocean. There, in April, the submarine sank a Dutch freighter, a British freighter, another American ‘liberty ship’ and a British tanker for a total of 29,828 tons. It was another resoundingly successful campaign for Italy’s most famous submarine. Sadly, those victories in a far distant sea were to be the last for Captain Gazzana-Priaroggia and the Leonardo da Vinci. On their way back to port the submarine was spotted and attacked by two British warships; the destroyer HMS Active and the frigate HMS Ness west of Cape Finisterre, Spain. The Leonardo da Vinci submerged, going deeper and deeper, trying to evade and elude the enemy but it was ultimately to no avail. Subject to fierce depth charge attack, the boat was finally destroyed and lost with all hands. Captain Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal for Military Valor by the Kingdom of Italy and the Knight’s Iron Cross by Germany in recognition of his great achievements.

With that sad day of May 23, 1943 the saga of the Leonardo da Vinci came to a tragic end. Yet, it had established itself as one of the most successful submarines in naval history. During its wartime career, spanning from June 1941 to May 1943 the Leonardo da Vinci had sunk 17 Allied ships for a total of 112,615 tons of enemy shipping destroyed, more than any other non-German submarine of the entire war. The story of this remarkable submarine is one that all Italians can look back on with pride and respect.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Italian Valor at El Alamein

This month marks the 73rd anniversary of the end of the (second) Battle of El Alamein, a turning point in World War II and a proud, though tragic, page in the history of the Royal Italian Army. It is unfortunate that so many people outside of Italy have never heard of the heroic part played by the Italians in this critical battle and the astonishing courage and determination displayed by the Italian forces. All too often, English-speaking accounts of the battle tend to ignore Italian participation entirely and focus only on the Germans with many never mentioning the Italians at all. It should be mentioned at the outset to what ultimately proved to be a doomed campaign that the commander of Italian forces in north Africa, Marshal of Italy Ettore Bastico, opposed the offensive into Egypt believing it would end in disaster. Not only was he correct about that but he was also correct in estimating why this would happen. He warned that the Axis supply lines would be stretched too thin and their forces would wither in the barren countryside if their attack became stalled for any appreciable length of time which, given the defensive tenacity of the British forces, was bound to happen.

Rommel and Bastico
This is what came about and, in this regard, mention must be made of the decision to call off the invasion of Malta, a key British island fortress that sat athwart the Axis supply lines across the Mediterranean from Italy to north Africa. Malta had been bombed to rubble, the Italian Royal Navy had taken control of the central Mediterranean Sea and the island was ripe for the taking. However, though German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was technically subordinate to Marshal Bastico, he was able to convince Hitler and Mussolini to postpone the attack on Malta to divert German and Italian air forces to cover his Egyptian campaign. He argued that Malta had been effectively neutralized and if his offensive succeeded in seizing Alexandria and the Suez Canal there would be no need to take Malta by force anyway. One particularly elite unit that was to play the leading role in the conquest of Malta was the Italian airborne division “Folgore” which was instead transported to Africa. The Axis offensive went well enough at first but finally ground to a halt at El Alamein. The Allied forces, built around the British 8th Army, gained information about the disposition of the Axis forces and all their plans. While Rommel was away in Europe on medical leave British Field Marshal Montgomery attacked with overwhelming force and by the time Rommel arrived back on the scene defeat was a foregone conclusion.

M13 tanks of the Ariete Division
Despite Hitler’s order to stand fast and fight to the last man, Rommel decided to retreat. This was possible for the German units which were highly mechanized and had plenty of transportation but the largely infantry formations of the Italian army would be left in the lurch. The Italian army was deployed at the southern end of the Axis line which ran from the coast to the edge of the impassable Qattara Depression. It would fall to the Italians to stand their ground and hold off immensely superior British forces in order for the Germans to have time to retreat to safety. As the British attacked, the Italian armored units were the first to endure the worst. Their modest M13/40 medium tanks were totally outmatched by their British enemies both in armor protection and in firepower (as well as rang, mechanical reliability and virtually every other aspect). Still, the Italian tanks fought to the finish as best they could, holding on until they were wiped out to the last man. Field Marshal Rommel himself wrote that, “In the ‘Arieta’ [Italian tank division] we lost our oldest Italian comrades, from whom we had probably always demanded more than they, with their poor armament, had been capable of performing.”

Folgore AT gunners in action
In terms of armor, the best the Italians could put forward was their Semovente 75/18 self-propelled gun or tank-destroyer which did considerable damage on the British but there were simply too few of them to have much of an impact. The Cannone-Mitragliera Da 20/65 Modello 35, a 20mm anti-aircraft gun, was also quite effective but, likewise, was never available in sufficient numbers. At the outset, Montgomery had at his disposal some 1,230 tanks including British Crusaders, Valentines and Matildas as well as American Lees/Grants and Shermans. By contrast Rommel had only 210 German panzers and 280 Italian tanks. Yet, the Italian forces fought with astounding ferocity and effectiveness. At the start of the British offensive, Operation Lightfoot, the front held by the Folgore Division repulsed four British attacks in four days despite being outnumbered 5 to 1 in guns, 13 to 1 in men and 70 to 1 in tanks. The Littorio Armored Division and Trieste Motorized Division also inflicted heavy losses on the British, fighting to the last man. Survivors of the Bologna and Trento Divisions were overrun by the British but fought their way out only to die of exposure in the desert without transportation. In one attack by British imperial troops the Italians lost 45 men compared to 400 of the enemy but the numerical superiority of the British was still able to make up such losses.

Folgore determined resistance
Most focus, however, has always been on the highly trained Italian paratroopers of the Folgore. They were ordered to hold their positions to buy time for the other Axis forces to escape back into Libya. Against repeated attacks by superior British forces they fought literally to their last round of ammunition. Throwing back one British advance after another, eventually all of their tanks were destroyed, all of their heavy guns were destroyed, all of the trench mortars were destroyed or out of ammunition and yet still they continued to hold on. The innovative Italians improvised their own anti-tank weapons by slipping out into the desert to dig up their land mines and using these along with Molotov cocktails, hurled themselves at the attacking enemy forces until they were almost completely wiped out. The men of the Folgore had been ordered to hold for 24 hours. Instead, they held off the forces of the British Empire for 72 hours and destroyed over 120 enemy tanks and vehicles in the process. The fact that any German forces survived the battle at all was thanks entirely to the Italian troops, like those of the Folgore, who paid with their lives to buy the time for them to escape to safety. Their sacrifice is not always remembered, outside of Italy anyway, but it certainly should be as no soldiers anywhere ever fought better.

combat engineer in action
When Marshal of Italy Ugo Cavallero, chief of the Supreme Command, agreed with Rommel and ordered the retreat, Italian forces remaining in the field often had no real chance of survival. Chronically short of transportation to begin with, by the time the order to retreat came, most units had nothing left at all and were too far forward to extricate themselves. Many were left helpless without ammunition, surrounded by the British with no means of escape and left with no other option but to surrender. Others tried to escape on foot but while some covered astounding distances, most were quickly overtaken by the enemy, exhausted and dehydrated with no means of resistance. There were also some occasions of bitterness due to a few cases of Germans commandeering Italian transport for their own men or repairing broken down Italian vehicles and thus claiming them as their own, leaving the Italians stranded. The Second Battle of El Alamein was a tragedy for Italy, costly and painful. Yet, at the same time, it is also a source of pride to remember how valiantly the Italians fought and how dearly they sold their lives in a desperate battle against an overwhelming foe.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Battle of Dijon: Italian Victory Over Prussia

A battle that is not often remembered in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was the Battle of Dijon, actually a series of three battles fought from October 29, 1870 to January 23, 1871. The Kingdom of Italy, still in its formative years, did not take sides in the conflict officially and public sentiment regarding the two sides changed dramatically over the course of the short conflict. Initially, most Italians were more supportive of Prussia which had most recently been an ally. The French Empire of Napoleon III had aided the Italians in driving Austria from Lombardy but had stopped short and then made peace which many in Italy viewed as almost a betrayal. The Prussians, in their previous war, had allied with Italy against Austria which resulted in Venice being restored to the Italian homeland. Napoleon had also garrisoned Rome with French troops and the Italian government was adamant that it wanted an end to the presence of any foreign soldiers on Italian soil. Toward this end, King Victor Emmanuel II had entertained the idea of assisting France in return for the withdrawal of French troops from Rome but Napoleon would not agree to this and so, despite a great deal of talk, Italy remained on the sidelines.

Many Italians hoped for a Prussian victory. However, that view changed completely with the downfall of Napoleon and the birth of the Third French Republic when Prussia  demanded the territory of Alsace from France. What had first been portrayed as a war of self-defense, then appeared to be a war of conquest and Italian opinion in many quarters shifted dramatically from favoring Prussia to favoring France. The Kingdom of Italy would still not participate in the conflict on an official level but many Italians would fight in the war on an unofficial level. The most famous Italian figure of the period, Giuseppe Garibaldi, offered his services. The French were reluctant to have him, remembering how he had fought them in front of Rome in the past but their situation was so desperate that they could hardly afford to refuse such an offer. Garibaldi arrived and was first given command of a small group of Italian volunteers but this was later expanded into the “Army of the Vosges” consisting variously from 5 to 15,000 men. It was a motley force of volunteers of diverse origins including Italians, French, Spanish, English, Irish and American fighters. They were organized into four brigades commanded by General Joseph Bossack (a Pole), Colonel Delpeck and Garibaldi’s sons Menotti Garibaldi and Ricciotti Garibaldi with General Bordone as Garibaldi’s chief of staff.

Garibaldi's General Staff
The military situation was dire. After the defeat of Napoleon at Sedan, the Prussians and their allies from the minor German states besieged Paris while also moving to consolidate their position and secure their flanks and supply lines. This included an advance on Dijon led by the Prussian General August von Werder, an experienced officer with a record of success. The Army of the Vosges had also tasted success when, on 14 November 1870, Ricciotti Garibaldi led 400 men in attacking and defeating about 1,000 Germans at Chatillon, taking 167 prisoners, capturing a great of weapons and ammunition and suffering only 6 killed and 12 wounded in the process. When word arrived that Dijon was being attacked by the Prussians, Garibaldi responded and moved to assist. However, before he arrived, the French had surrendered and the first battle of Dijon was over. Garibaldi knew he would be outmatched but that was a circumstance he had grown accustomed to in his career and so he was considering a night attack when the opportunity presented itself to surprise a portion of the Prussian army outside of town.

Garibaldi deployed his men and ambushed the Prussians who put up a fight but were caught in a withering fire and soon retreated. Garibaldi seized the opportunity and ordered his men to pursue, chasing the Prussians all the way back to Dijon. Not wishing to let up, Garibaldi pushed on and attacked Dijon the same evening his forces arrived, even though he had only 5,000 men. His men were aggressive and enthusiastic but had little training and experience, particularly compared to the magnificently drilled and disciplined Prussians. The fighting for the town went on all through the night but the Prussians held their ground and Garibaldi was finally forced to withdraw and fall back to Autun. This time it was the Prussians that pursued him. The Prussians applied fierce Teutonic pressure to Garibaldi and his men at Autun but the build-up of French forces near Dijon worried General Werder and so he cancelled the attack to concentrate all of his strength on Dijon, inadvertently saving Garibaldi from what appeared to be certain doom. In the end, Werder decided he would not defend Dijon anyway and evacuated his forces.

Garibaldi on the march to Dijon
Garibaldi and his men planned to move to Dijon, occupy the town themselves and fight a defensive battle against the Prussians. After a rest and careful planning, his men began the grueling winter march to Dijon. The town was occupied, defenses were manned and Garibaldi and his troops waited for the inevitable Prussian attack. That attack came, from the west, on January 21, 1871 and lasted for four days. The fighting was fierce and surged back and forth between both sides with attacks and counter-attacks. Eventually, the Prussians were defeated and forced to retreat. For Garibaldi, the crowning achievement of his forces was the capture of the flag of the 61st Pomeranian Regiment. It was the only regimental flag that the Prussian forces lost in the entire war and is part of why the battle for Dijon is a page of military history that the Germans would rather forget about. Eventually of course, as France did lose the war, the Prussians came back and kept up the pressure until Garibaldi withdrew his exhausted soldiers. France agreed to hand over Alsace-Lorraine to the newly united Germany and to pay heavy war reparations. The French, however, seemed almost as embarrassed by Garibaldi’s victory as the Prussians. He had succeeded where they had failed and the only one to claim a German flag as a trophy was an elderly Italian rather than the professional French army. The locals, of course, were appreciative and elected Garibaldi to represent them in the National Assembly (to Garibaldi’s surprise) but as he was Italian and not French he was not allowed to take up his seat.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Royal Quote

"For this beloved country, which is the blessed land in which my dearest children were born and educated, I make an ardent prayer, to the Virgin Mother of God, a prayer which mingles with yours, so that God may bless us all and so that He may save Italy."
-Queen Marie Jose

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

King Umberto I, Remember

On this day in 1900, King Umberto I of Italy was assassinated by an anarchist. During his reign, the Kingdom of Italy had secured alliances with major powers and first expanded overseas in East Africa. He fought in the Italian Wars for Independence, helping make Italy a free and united nation. His life and times should not be forgotten.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

King Ferdinando I of the Two-Sicilies

The reign of the Spanish over southern Italy and the island of Sicily, in its last instance, can be traced back to their seizure from the Austrian Hapsburgs during the War of the Polish Succession. At that time, the son of King Philip V of Spain, Charles, was placed on the throne. He had previously been Duke of Parma before moving to Naples as part of the constant struggles and trade deals between the great powers over the states of the Italian peninsula. Eventually, he succeeded his brother as King Charles III of Spain (Carlos III) and so he passed the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily to one of his sons, Ferdinand, who had been born in Naples on January 12, 1751. He was to preside over a time of immense tumult, trepidation and transition in the history of southern Italy, ending ultimately in the creation of a new political entity called the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies. Little Ferdinand was only in his eighth year when he became King Ferdinand IV of Naples and III of Sicily when his father became King of Spain. King Charles III was forbidden by treaty from continuing to rule over all three kingdoms personally so choosing his third son to succeed him in Naples was a way of ensuring that the Spanish Bourbon dynasty would still retain the crown.

Obviously, as a small child at the time, actual power remained in the hands of the King of Spain or those officials appointed by him to administer southern Italy. At the head of the local government was a council of regency led by Bernardo Tanucci, a native of Tuscany and servant of the King of Spain who had fully embraced the “Enlightenment” ideas that were sweeping the educated elites of society in those days. Tanucci wanted to keep power centralized in his own hands, “reform” the Catholic Church and make government and society more “rational” as he saw it. His efforts to establish state supremacy over the Church earned him an excommunication from Pope Clement XIII, which he responded to by seizing a couple of Catholic monasteries. Unfortunately, his control of the government also gave him considerable power over the upbringing of his young monarch and he was certainly not a positive influence. Because he wished to hold on to power for himself as much as possible, he made sure that King Ferdinand IV learned only what he wished him to know. He encouraged the boy to be frivolous and concentrate on indulging rather than educating himself. Tanucci did, however, make sure that the King grew up with his sense of values.

Due to this, King Ferdinand IV was more adept at sports and other pleasurable pursuits than he was at administration by the time he reached his majority in 1767. As an absolute monarch, Ferdinand IV could rule as he wished but he still kept Tanucci on his council. His first action as King of Naples and Sicily was to expel the Jesuits from his domain, an act which undoubtedly pleased Tanucci greatly. His second priority was to find a suitable wife to ensure that the Bourbon reign would continue. The choice ultimately fell on Archduchess Maria Carolina, the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary (making her, of course the sister of Emperor Joseph II and Queen Marie Antoinette). More like her brother than her mother, Queen Maria Carolina was also receptive to the new ideas of the “Enlightenment” and favored what would become known in monarchial history as “enlightened despotism”. She was like her mother in that she was strong-willed and assertive. In 1768 she and King Ferdinand were married as part of an Austro-Spanish alliance and by the terms of the treaty the Queen was given a place on the governing council where she made her wishes known. This caused a clash with Tanucci, who was used to being in charge, but the Queen emerged triumphant over the old courtier.

Many came to believe that the Queen was the real ruler of Naples, a charge not without some facts to support it. King Ferdinand had been discouraged throughout his youth from taking much interest in government and was known among some of the public as il ré lazzarone which, while hard to translate exactly, could be understood as the ‘peasant king’ or someone who behaves in a very low-class way. He was not known for his great virtue but he and the Queen certainly had a productive marriage if not a happy one as they had eighteen children. Rather remarkable considering that both, at various times, said they found the other unattractive and stayed together only out of a sense of duty and obligation. Still, the King could have his fun while the Queen worked to consolidate her own position of power. Naples was effectively still being ruled by the King of Spain through Tanucci until the Queen succeeded in having him dismissed over the issue of the Freemasons (Tanucci banned them, the Queen wanted the ban lifted). The Queen took her advice from her Austrian homeland, such as strengthening the navy, and took the country much closer to Great Britain through the influence of an Englishman who was one of her favorites (and about whom there was no shortage of gossip). She also tried to patch up relations with the Catholic Church.

All of this caused a great deal of bad feelings amongst the Spanish Royal Family. The Queen had appointed an Englishman to power at around the same time King Charles III was going to war against Britain alongside France and the fledgling United States. Ties with Austria and Britain increased to the extent that one could easily wonder which country really held power over Naples. For the average Neapolitan, however, none of this might have mattered. They were used to doing things their own way and would ‘keep calm and carry on’ no matter which foreign dynasty happened to be ruling them at the moment. However, the experiments with the philosophy of the “Enlightenment” undermined traditional reverence for the monarchy. In some countries, this had no immediate effect so long as the country was well governed. Unfortunately, under King Ferdinand IV, Naples was not being well-governed. The Queen’s English favorite had actually done considerable harm to the administration of the country. So it was that a perfect storm was brewing in Naples when word came of the outbreak of the French Revolution, culminating in the horrific regicide of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.

The effort, nominally by King Ferdinand IV, to be an “Enlightened Despot” came to a screeching halt and the King and Queen turned in a decidedly reactionary direction due to the alarming events in France. In 1793 Ferdinand IV pledged the Kingdom of Naples to the War of the First Coalition against republican France and began trying to root out any hint of republicanism or republican sympathy in southern Italy wherever it could be found. However, when he was obliged to make peace with France in 1796 revolutionary agitation at home started to increase again. Queen Maria Carolina persuaded King Ferdinand to declare war on France again in 1798 and though Neapolitan troops briefly marched north and occupied Rome, it was a complete fiasco with the army retreating at the first sign of a French advance (the Neapolitan army had a very poor reputation in this period). The revolutionary forces in Naples saw their chance and began to rise up in imitation of their radical French counterparts. The Royal Family, fearful of sharing the fate of the French King and Queen, immediately fled to Sicily with help from Britain.

Once ensconced in Palermo, King Ferdinand showed his fangs and began massacring any suspected republican he could get his hands on. However, back in Naples, the middle and upper classes that had supported him had been left to the bloodthirsty mob and so quickly called on the French for help. The result was the occupation of southern Italy by French forces and the establishment of the ridiculous contrivance known as the Parthenopaean Republic. In response to this outrage, and in an illustration of how far he had back-peddled from his “Enlightenment” days, King Ferdinand turned to one of the most dashing and fascinating characters of Italian history, the rich, religious, royalist reactionary Ruffo, that is His Eminence Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo. I must admit here to my partiality as Cardinal Ruffo and his exploits have always been a favorite of mine. The Italian cleric landed in Calabria and raised a counterrevolutionary force of irregulars he dubbed the ‘Army of the Holy Faith’ (they were commonly known as the Sanfedisti). With artillery from Britain and some additional support from Russia, Cardinal Ruffo went after the revolutionaries Old Testament style and his cohorts of religious royalists soon had the whole of southern Italy in an uproar and eventually forced the French to agree to an armistice and wash their hands of the region. It was a glorious and unexpectedly successful operation that was also a colorful adventure, with pious as well as gruesome elements to it.

By July of 1799 King Ferdinand IV had moved from executing republicans in Palermo to executing republicans in Naples, so things were moving in the right direction. However, Napoleon was not going to permit a Bourbon monarchy to remain on the continent he wished to dominate and soon French troops were on their way back led by the Emperor’s brother Joseph. Once again, in 1806, King Ferdinand and his retinue fled to Palermo and Joseph Bonaparte was appointed King of Naples by his brother. Still, the French were constantly having to deal with guerilla attacks and were issued a stinging defeat by the British in the south though the British expedition withdrew afterwards. In 1808 Ferdinand IV received a new nemesis when Joseph Bonaparte was withdrawn to become King of Spain and replaced by Marshal Joachim Murat. He did not have much sense but he was more of a threat as he was more popular than his predecessor, mostly because of his ambition which pushed him toward Italian independence rather than French domination. This naturally led to problems with Napoleon and eventually Murat was defeated by the Austrians and after he fled to France, the Austrian Imperial Army marched in to Naples and announced the restoration of King Ferdinand IV to his throne.

During this time, the Bourbon King and Queen had been having problems of their own in Sicily. The British had given them a subsidy and a garrison to guard them and naturally expected no small amount of influence to coincide with this protection. They tried to steer the country in the direction of a Burkean constitutional monarchy, to encourage popular support for the establishment by having people invested in it rather than for fear of being shot. King Ferdinand was more of the “better dead than red” persuasion and ultimately this resulted in the Queen being exiled and the King forced to issue a classical liberal constitution and make his son regent. However, once Napoleon was defeated and the British had pulled out, King Ferdinand reversed all of that, went back to absolute monarchy, enlisted the help of Austria in regaining his throne in Naples and had Murat shot when he made a bid to restore himself.

At the Congress of Vienna, King Ferdinand IV of Naples abolished the Sicilian constitution and declared himself King Ferdinand I of the Two-Sicilies. All previous agreements were annulled, all enemies or potential enemies of the regime were executed and the Austrian army remained to garrison southern Italy and enforce his rule. He also appointed an Austrian commander-in-chief of the Neapolitan army. All of this caused increasing resentment among the populace and a growth in the revolutionary secret society known as the Carbonari. In 1820 there was a mutiny among the army and an attempted military coup led by General Guglielmo Pepe which forced King Ferdinand I to issue a constitution while at the same time sending troops to stamp down a rebellion for independence in Sicily. All of this chaos drew the attention of the great powers of the Holy Alliance who feared a revolutionary outbreak could spread. King Ferdinand repudiated, again, the constitutional concessions he had made, further damaging his credibility and winning himself no friends amongst the other crowned heads of Europe for his antics. In the end, Prince Metternich sent another Austrian army to occupy southern Italy, defeating the Neapolitan rebels and securing Ferdinand I on his throne once again.

In the end, as before, King Ferdinand abolished the constitution and tried his best to have all revolutionary elements executed but he depended on the Austrian military to sustain himself and, as before, this came at a price. By the end of his life, Austria was effectively ruling southern Italy in his name through the Austrian ambassador Count Charles-Louis de Ficquelmont. King Ferdinand I of the Two-Sicilies, at the age of 73, gave up the ghost in Naples on January 4, 1825. He had started his reign with his country being ruled from Madrid and had ended it with his country being ruled from Vienna. In the intervening years there had never been any shortage of people, all outsiders, wishing to do his job for him. At first he had been content to leave matters to his wife but the horror that swept Europe after the outbreak of the French Revolution  changed all of that. Today he is often remembered as a rather crude and brutal man, constantly being propped up by foreign bayonets to maintain himself. He is the man who ate spaghetti with his fingers at the opera and had lots of people executed. However, before judging him too harshly, one should keep in mind the fact that he was intentionally raised to be disinterested in government and not really prepared for the task. Thus, it is no great surprise that he wasn’t terribly good at it. Also, after going along with the “Enlightenment” trend, his later penchant for putting people to death was a reaction to a very real fear that what had happened to his fellow Bourbon monarch in France could happen to him. What is unfortunate is that he too often broke his own word, damaging his reputation among his subjects and the other courts of Europe. It was a tendency that would be repeated with his successors and the pattern of his reign would, unfortunately, be repeated in a number of ways until the Bourbon reign over the Two-Sicilies came to an end.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Italian-American Hero Francis Vigo

One Italian who became a celebrated hero in the American War for Independence was Francis Vigo. A Piedmontese, he was born Giuseppe Maria Francesco Vigo on December 13, 1747 in Mondovì, Italy. Originally a soldier of fortune, like many Italians at the time, he came to America as part of the Spanish army stationed in New Orleans, Louisiana. When his service was finished he opened a fur trading business in the (then) frontier town of St Louis, Missouri in 1772. In 1783 he moved to Vincennes, Indiana and opened another fur trading business there, buying and selling among the Native Americans and the local settlers. When the American War for Independence broke out, Vigo aided the patriot cause and is most famous for his work as a scout and what we would today call an espionage agent for George Rogers Clark, leader of the rebel forces on the western frontier. While gathering information for Clark, Vigo was captured by Native Americans in service of the British Crown and handed over to the local British Governor, Henry Hamilton (aka "Hamilton the Hair Buyer" for his policy of rewarding Natives for the scalps of rebels).

Hamilton suspected Vigo of aiding the American rebels but as he was legally a subject of the King of Spain, he could not be held and as a possible traitor and so he was paroled but kept under close watch. However, Spain and France were both sympathetic to the American cause and there was also religious solidarity on the part of Catholics on the frontier in opposition to Protestant Britain. So, Father Gibault, the local Catholic priest, organized the French population of Vincennes to protest to the Governor for Vigo's release, even threatening to cut off the supplies sustaining the British garrison at Fort Sackville if Hamilton refused. Hamilton released Vigo but made him promise not to "do any thing injurious to the British interests on his way to St. Louis." Vigo was nothing if not honest and so he returned to St Louis first and then traveled to Kaskaskia to inform Colonel Clark of the British defenses at Vincennes. He had kept his word not to do anything to harm British interests "on his way to St Louis" while still carrying out his mission on behalf of Clark. Because of the information he provided, Clark was able to take Vincennes in 1779.

Vigo was also a very successful businessman and he was the leading financial backer of the American cause in the old northwest (as what is today known as the midwest was called at the time). He willingly exchanged paper promises from the Continental Congress for hard currency that was actually valued and useful. Unfortunately for Vigo, he was never repaid so his support for the cause of independence was a complete sacrifice for him. After the war, he continued his business, expanding his trade network to the east coast and in the early 19th Century was responsible for the establishment of Vincennes University as well as becoming the commanding colonel of the Knox County Militia before his retirement in 1810. He died on March 22, 1836, an honored and respected figure in the community but still not compensated by the American government for the great losses he incurred on their behalf. A monument in his honor today stands in the George Rogers Clark historical park in Vincennes, Indiana.

Monday, June 22, 2015

General Rino Corso Fougier

Rino Corso Fougier was born on November 14, 1894 in Bastia, France. In 1912 he enlisted in the Regio Esercito (Royal Army) and showed promise. He took the reserve officer student training course and in 1914 was commissioned a second lieutenant in command of a platoon of bicycle-mounted Bersaglieri. When the Kingdom of Italy entered World War I the following year he served with the Seventh Bersaglieri Regiment and was wounded in action on June 23, 1915 by a mine explosion while carrying out a reconnaissance mission. He pushed forward and earned the Silver Medal for Military Valor for his heroism. However, his aspirations caused him to look to the skies and he began training as a combat pilot at the Battalion Airmen School of Venaria Reale in Piedmont, earning his license in 1916 and becoming a combat pilot the following year. Posted to the 113th Squadron, he saw action in numerous air battles. He earned his second Silver Medal after taking on three enemy planes on May 20, 1917 over the Austrians' Banjšice Plateau, a fight in which he was wounded again. He served in other squadrons and was promoted to the rank of captain, earning a third Silver Medal along the way. After the war he was appointed to command his own squadron.

Previously, he was still officially a Bersaglieri officer but in 1923 the Regia Aeronautica (Royal Air Force) was officially established and in 1927 Fougier was promoted to lieutenant colonel. From 1928 to 1933 he commanded the First Wing and was singled out for praise by Air Marshal Italo Balbo. In 1930 he established the first school of aerobatics which would become a famous institution and during World War II the Italian pilots would be widely known for their aerobatic skill. In 1931 he was promoted to colonel and from 1933 to 1934 commanded the 3rd Air Brigade. Subsequently he saw colonial service as commander of the air forces in Libya until 1937. He commanded Italian air forces in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and saw action again in the Spanish Civil War in which Italian air power played a critical role. Afterwards, he was made inspector of air force training schools and had a couple of other assignments before Italian entry into World War II. Despite being pioneers in air warfare, Italy entered the conflict with some considerable disadvantages. Success in previous campaigns with older aircraft meant that innovation was not given the priority it should have and most Italian aircraft were outdated when Italy entered the war. The industrial capacity of the country was also insufficient to meet the demands of a world war.

In 1940, General Rino Corso Fougier received his most famous assignment; command of the Italian air forces operating in the Battle of Britain (see Italians in the Battle of Britain). Although they are not often remembered in histories of the Battle of Britain, the Italians actually did quite well, especially considering how outmatched their maneuverable but slow CR.42 biplanes were by the British Spitfires. The Italian pilots flew numerous missions, performed very well in air-to-air combat and inflicted about as much damage on the British as they lost themselves. Italian bombing raids on coastal installations also did considerable damage and forced the British RAF to divert resources which would have been better employed in fending off attacks by the German Luftwaffe. It was a campaign that deserves to be more widely known because the Italian pilots performed very well and were not without successes. At Felixtowne, Harwich and Ramsgate, the initial Italian air attacks went very well and the daylight raid on Ramsgate resulted in only five Italian aircraft being damaged by anti-aircraft fire. In air-to-air combat with the RAF the outmatched Italians generally gave as good as they got, inflicting as much damage as they incurred. Counting fighters and bombers, the Italian forces lost 15 aircraft in the Battle of Britain but destroyed an equal number of British aircraft in the process while dropping 54 tons of ordinance on the enemy.

Eventually, however, Mussolini determined that Italy's resources had to be focused on the Mediterranean (though there was the diversion of forces to Russia) and so the Italian Air Corps in Belgian operating against England was withdrawn. After the dismissal of General Francesco Pricolo, General Rino Corso Fougier was promoted to Chief of Staff of the Regia Aeronautica and Secretary of State. In 1942 he was promoted to General of the Army (Aviation) but his military career came to an end the following year with the downfall of the Fascist state and the armistice with the Allies. Because the Regia Aeronautica had been born in the Fascist era there were those who harbored suspicions about the whole organization and General Rino Corso Fougier was stripped of his post and left the military to retire to civilian life. Nonetheless, he had finished a remarkable career of service to his King and his nation. He died in Rome on April 24, 1963.