The situation deteriorates
After the battle of El Alamein, but especially after the Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria, the Italian leadership started to think about a way to solve the increasingly deteriorating strategic situation.
Mussolini tried, with no success, to convince Hitler to strike a separate peace with the Soviet Union and then concentrate on the Mediterranean and the Western Allies. Germany had other priorities and the requests for military aid were met only in a minimal part. The Italians were well aware that they could not face the overwhelming military might of the Allies, without significant help from the Germans. From their side, the Germans too realised this but the Eastern front attracted most of their attention and resources, until it was too late for the Italian ally.
The invasion of Sicily in July 1943 was the catalyst for the downfall of Mussolini, which occurred only 15 days (on the 25th) after Allied troops landed on the Sicilian shores. The King, the Generals, and part of the fascist elite were convinced that the dictator was unable to bring Italy out of the war. A vote of the Grand Council of Fascism and the action of the King finally led to the end of Mussolini’s rule. He was replaced by Marshall Badoglio, who formed a new government, mostly composed of military men.
The population cheered at the news of Mussolini’s downfall and no violent reaction came from fascist blackshirts. Removing the dictator was a huge step for the new ruling elite, almost everybody agreed that Italy had to be pulled out of the war but none knew how to do it.
Meeting the Germans
The King and the new Government feared the most a German-supported coup, aimed at re-installing Mussolini back in power. They immediately flooded the Germans with reassurance on the Italian commitment to the Axis cause, but trust was not to be found.
It is true that from the fall of Tunisia in May 1943, the Germans had started to plan the occupation of the peninsula in the event of an Italian defection from the Axis. The Germans could not afford to lose Italy, for its agricultural and industrial resources located in the north, but also because it acted as a natural buffer zone between the Allies and the southern border of the Reich.
Hitler saw in the removal of Mussolini, a treason of the Axis pact and did not believe the declarations and re-assurances coming from Badoglio that “the war continues”. The Germans started to move fresh units to Italy, on paper for facing the allies in the south while in reality, they got closer to strategic locations, like alpine passes, airfields and railroad junctions. Between the 26th of July and the 17th August, 9 divisions and other minor units entered in Italy. In contrast to the much more limited support offered between May and July.
On the 6th of August, the new Italian foreign minister, Raffaele Guariglia met his German counterpart, Joachim Von Ribbentrop (the Tarvisio meeting). Also, the respective chiefs of General staff were present, Vittorio Ambrosio and Wilhelm Keitel. The tension was high, as the Italians protested against the unnotified movements of German troops into the peninsula, while the Germans replied that such actions had been previously agreed. Ribbentrop openly asked Guariglia if there had been contacts with the Allies to seek terms and the Italian minister promptly denied. The Italians wanted to withdraw some of their divisions stationed in the Balkans and in Southern France but the Germans took time, saying that Hitler needed to analyse this request.
The mission of General Castellano
The Italian government was trying to buy time but the Germans were increasingly becoming hostile and flooding the country with troops threatening the Italian sovereignty. An initial attempt to contact the allies through diplomatic agents had failed. On the 12th of August, the government sent General Castellano to Lisbon (in neutral Portugal) to seek new contacts with the Allies.
Castellano made a stop in Madrid where he spoke with the British ambassador Samuel Hoare. Castellano spoke for the first time about the possibility of Italy fighting against the Germans with the Allies. This information was passed on to Churchill and Roosevelt, who were meeting in Quebec. The prospect of an Italian help against the Germans came as a surprise, but a welcomed one. They ordered Eisenhower to send two military envoys to meet Castellano in Lisbon.
Allied leaders stuck to the request for an unconditional surrender of Italy. However, they came up with the principle (the Qubuec declaration) that in case of Italian support against the Germans, the terms of the armistice would have been much more favourable.
On the 19th of August Castellano met the generals Bedell Smith (American) and Kenneth Strong (British). Castellano reaffirmed the willingness of the government to take action against the Germans and gave detailed information about the location and consistency of their units in Italy.
At this point, the main objective of the Allies was the opening another front in France, and the resources to do that while continuing the operations in Italy were limited.
In this context, the Italian offer became a factor that would have simplified the situation, allowing for another landing in mainland Italy, facing less opposition.
Castellano travelled back to Italy to report on his talks with the allies and Marshall Badoglio decided to send him back (this time in Sicily) to make counterproposals. Castellano reached the town of Cassibile on the 31st of August. Now, the main concern was getting the assurance that the Allies would have landed north of Rome with consistent forces, communicating the exact date to the Italians.
The Allies remained vague on the date of the landings and made clear that they would have occurred south of Rome. In the meantime, the Italians should have defended Rome, long enough for the Allied divisions to reach the capital. To secure the Italian’s acceptance of the terms, the Allies promised to send an American airborne division to reinforce the defence of Rome.
These and other terms were finally accepted by the Italians, so Castellano and Bedell Smith signed the armistice on the 3rd of September in Cassibile. The public announcement would have been made on the day of the main Allied landing in Italy (Operation Avalanche).
At this point, Badoglio and the army leaders behaved and acted in a way that eventually sabotaged the agreements for the action against the Germans. They falsely assumed that the landings would have occurred after the 12th of September and took almost no initiative to cope with the new scenario and prepare the troops. The fear of the German reaction and the obsession with secrecy probably played a role in their slow and ineffective action.
On the 7th of September, American General Maxwell Taylor arrived in secrecy in Rome to personally evaluate the Italian preparations for the arrival of the American airborne division (Operation Giant 2). He sadly assessed that no preparation had been made and communicated that the start of the allied airborne and seaborne operations was scheduled for the next day. This information put in crisis Badoglio and General Carboni, the commander of the land forces defending Rome. Taylor pretended that Badoglio himself communicated to Eisenhower the need to abort Giant 2. The operation was called off almost when the paratroopers were boarding the transport aircraft. Badoglio also asked for the postponement of the armistice announcement, however, it was too late for this.
Facing the inevitable landings, having not adequately prepared the country and the armed forces to the new situation. Badoglio and the King opted for fleeing the capital in the early hours of the 9th of September, some hours after the public announcement of the Armistice. Their behaviour and lack of preparation threw the country and the armed forces, especially those deployed abroad in a tragic situation.
The German reaction was firm and quick, and contrary to Italian and Allied predictions, they did not withdraw behind the Appennines, north of Florence. Instead, they attacked the allied bridgehead in Salerno and later stabilized the front on the Gustav line, extending the Italian campaign by roughly a year.
Rainero, R. H. (1994). Il 25 Luglio: i quarantacinque giorni. L’Italia in guerra, il quarto anno – 1943, 83-100.
Rossi, E. A. (2008). A Nation Collapses: The Italian Surrender of September 1943.
Stefani, F. (1994). L’8 settembre e le forze armate italiane. L’Italia in Guerra, il 4° anno – 1943, 137-154.