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.