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Giovanni Messe: Italy’s Best WWII General

by Shelly Barclay

Background on Giovanni Messe

Giovanni Messe was a career soldier who earned the rank of Marshal of Italy during World War II. He was a distinguished and highly decorated soldier, who served in the conquest of Libya, WWI, the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, and WWII. He also stayed true to his country and king when Italy became a divided nation after the armistice.

Giovanni Messe was born in Mesagne, Italy on December 10, 1883. He began his military career in 1901, at the age of 18. Ten years later, he fought in the conquest of Libya. Just a few years after that, he fought in World War I. During WWI, Major Giovanni Messe acted as commander of the 9th Parachute Assault Regiment (IX Nono Reparto Arditi) on Monte Grappa. Around this time, he formed and trained the Arditi special infantry units for the Royal Italian Army.


Rise in Rank

Giovanni Messe made a name for himself in Libya as a capable commander. In 1923, he was appointed military-secretary to King Vittorio Emmanuele III. Messe remained such until 1927, at which time he became a Colonel. He commanded yet another infantry unit of the Royal Italian Army until 1935. In 1935, Messe was given the rank of Brigadier General and was placed in command of a motor brigade. In this capacity, he served in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War (1935-1936).

Following the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, Giovanni Messe was promoted to Major General and given command of the Italian Armored Division. Just before the outbreak of World War II, Major General Messe was sent to Italy’s new protectorate-Albania-to serve under General Ubaldo Soddu. That was short-lived. From October 1940 to April 1941, Messe commanded a corps of Italian soldiers in the Greco-Italian War. Giovanni Messe had some successes against Greek forces but was ultimately forced to fight a defensive war until the arrival of the German Wehrmacht in April of 1941. German aid led to an Axis victory in Greece.

General Giovanni Messe inspecting Bersaglieri infantry.

Major General Giovanni Messe inspecting Bersaglieri infantry.

Command of the Italian and Expeditionary Corps in Russia (CSIR)

CSIR General Giovanni Messe meets with other commanders near Stalingrad.

After the Greco-Italian War, Major General Giovanni Messi was sent to Russia to command the mobile light infantry and cavalry Italian and Expeditionary Corps in Russia (CSIR) or Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia. Messe was involved in Operation Barbarossa in this capacity. Major General Giovanni Messe felt that he and his 60,000 soldiers were ill-equipped for a prolonged occupation of the Soviet Union. His Corps was subsequently supplemented by the much larger Italian Army in Russia (Armata Italiana in Russia) in July of 1942. Messe opposed the introduction of more Italian troops until steps were taken to properly supply them.  Messe’s demands did not sit well with Mussolini, which ultimately led to his transfer out of the theatre four months later. However, his effective use of Italian forces in the Soviet Union was noted by his German allies.  Messe was awarded the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross.

Command of the First Italian Army

In January of 1943, Giovanni Messe was sent to the African front to fight the American and Commonwealth forces in Tunisia. There, he commanded the First Italian Army under Army Group Africa. He fought a defensive campaign against the Allies until his forces were eventually surrounded at Enfidaville and the 5th German Panzer Army capitulated. On May 12, 1943, Giovanni Messe became Marshal of Italy. He had reached the highest rank in the Royal Italian Army. He surrendered Armeegruppe Afrika to the Allies the following day. The unbreakable defensive line at Enfidaville was his final military achievement.

Giovanni Messe takes command of the First Italian Army. To his left is Erwin Rommel. Image: Mondadori Portfolio

Giovanni Messe takes command of the First Italian Army. To his left is Erwin Rommel. Image: Mondadori Portfolio

Just a few months after Marshal Giovanni Messe surrendered Army Group Africa to the Allies, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies. As Messe was loyal to the king, he was repatriated to Italy and given the position of Chief of Staff of the Italian Co-Belligerent Army (Esercito Cobelligerante Italiana). The Italian Co-Belligerent Army was made up of Royal Italian Army units still loyal to the king. He served in this position until the end of World War II in 1945. He retired that same year after 44 years of service.

After the War and Death

Giovanni Messe went on to become a representative in the Italian Senate. He also wrote a book about his time in Africa. However, the most significant role Messe played after his retirement was not that of author or representative to the Senate. It was as President of the Italian Veterans Association. His dedication to his troops seems never to have faltered.

Marshal Giovanni Messe died in Rome on December 19, 1968. He was 85-years-old.

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