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When last we left the Italians, a remnant of the Royal Italian Army had finally struggled out of the Don Pocket, created by the Soviet encirclement of the German 6 Armee at Stalingrad. Other Italian units on the Eastern Front had been cut to pieces as well. In the summer of 1942 and through the early fall, the King had bestirred himself and urged Mussolini to extract the Italian forces in the Soviet Union.
That advice was not taken. After the brutal winter fighting of 1942/43 in the Soviet Union, the troops came home in the summer of 1943, over half were KIA or MIA. Of those taken prisoner by the Soviets, 85% died in captivity. The Italian adventure in the Soviet Union ordered by Mussolini had been a catastrophe.
Scores of German and Italian prisoners at Gromalia prisoner of war camp after the fall of Tunis.
Dino Grandi during the 1930s when he was a member of the National Fascist Party. Grandi formally asked the King to remove Mussolini from power at the 25 July 1943 Fascist Grand Council meeting.
Yet there was more bad news for Musso. In mid-May of 1943, at the end of a long and bloody campaign, all Axis forces in North Africa (including the vaunted German Afrika Korps) surrendered to Anglo-American troops. With this surrender, Italy had lost her entire colonial empire in North Africa. This victory for the Allies had been accompanied with a parallel campaign of great ferocity: air and naval superiority in the Mediterranean. This should not be taken to mean that the Allies completely controlled the Mediterranean since at this point we did not. But close. The British, especially the Royal Navy had taken a terrific beating from the Germans and occasionally the Italians but they had held on doggedly until reinforced by the Americans.
With the collapse of Axis resistance in North Africa, even a dunderhead could look at the map and observe that the next step for the Anglo-Americans would be an attack on Sicily or the Italian mainland or both.
With the knowledge of the King, men opposed to Mussolini had been preparing for a coup d’état. I would note that Victor Emmanuel bestirred himself less so because of the suffering of the Italian people and more so for the preservation of the dynasty. Historians who lack Christian charity have made the point that the House of Savoy never ended a war on the same side with which it had begun that war. Surely not. Granted, this is the case in numerous instances but there are a few exceptions, World War One for example. I’m sure there must be one or two more exceptions.
During the time of the fighting and subsequent defeat in North Africa, it had also become apparent to Mussolini’s supporters that the game was up. When Mussolini summoned the Fascist Grand Council to meet on 25 July 1943, he inadvertently brought all the actors upon the stage. He thought it would be a routine meeting. It was not.
Mussolini did not have total control of Italy as Hitler did in Germany. As Musso himself said, “there are three of us in Rome; myself, the King, and the Pope.” Unlike Hitler, Musso was not Chief of State. That role still remained with the monarch. While Mussolini had appointed himself commander-in-chief of the armed forces, usurping the King’s constitutional authority, Italian soldiers did not swear an oath of allegiance to Mussolini or even Italy. They swore an oath to be loyal to the House of Savoy.
Source: The Brutal Friendship: Mussolini, Hitler, and the Fall of Italian Fascism by F.W. Deakin (Four stars).
[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]