On 25 July 1943, Benito Mussolini, the world’s first Fascist dictator, attended a meeting with King Victor Emmanuel of Italy. He was told by the King that the Grand Fascist Council had just resolved by nineteen votes to seven to remove him from office. As he left the meeting, Mussolini was arrested.
It was an inglorious – and somewhat low key – end to Mussolini’s blustering leadership of his country. But the fact that the Italian state still had institutions capable of removing their fascist dictator bloodlessly from office is very significant – since Hitler had been careful to demolish any such checks and balances within the German system of government. After President Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler had taken on the role of Head of the German State himself. And since he loathed formal meetings – both temperamentally and politically – there was no German equivalent of the ‘Grand Fascist Council’ to meet and discuss his performance.
As for Mussolini, the reason he was deposed was simple – it was obvious that Italy was about to lose the war. The Allies had landed in Sicily on 10 July 1943 as part of Operation Husky, an offensive that had been agreed at the Casablanca conference attended by Roosevelt and Churchill at the start of the year. But, significantly, it wasn’t until the Allies were actually on Sicilian soil that the decision was finally taken that they should move forward onto the Italian mainland.
It seems incredible, today, that such an important and – as it turned out – controversial offensive should have been resolved so late, but it was symptomatic of the simmering dispute between the British and the Americans over the relative importance and timing of D-Day and the invasion of France. The British were consistent in their desire to fight first in ‘secondary’ theatres of the war like Italy, but the Americans, certainly by now, were much more strident in their demands for D-Day to be a priority.
But once the Allies were in Sicily it seemed obvious that they ought to move the few miles across the sea into southern Italy. There were, however, two problems the Allies faced. The first was caused by the delay in deciding priorities – whether to invade Italy or not – and by the sophistication of the German retreat through the island. This all meant that the Germans were able to evacuate over 50,000 battle-hardened troops to the Italian mainland, and prepare for the arrival of the Allies. The second problem was more far reaching. Because, as Napoleon had said, ‘Italy is like a boot. You have to enter it from the top.’ The harsh strategic reality was that the mountainous region of southern Italy was ideal defensive territory.
On 9 September 1943, US General Mark Clark led his troops onto the beaches of Salerno near Naples. The Italian Armistice had just been announced the day before. Marshal Pietro Badoglio, Italy’s political leader since the overthrow of Mussolini back in July, had been in secret negotiations with the Allies for weeks. In fact, the exit of Italy from the war had been confidentially agreed on 3 September, but not revealed to the world before the invasion of the mainland. President Franklin Roosevelt commemorated the event with these words in a radio broadcast: ‘The great news you have heard from General Eisenhower does not give you licence to settle back in your rocking chair and say 'Well, that does it. We've got 'em on the run. Now we start celebrating.' The time has not yet come for celebration.’
It most certainly had not – for the exit of Italian troops from the war only seemed to stiffen German resistance. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the overall commander of German troops in Italy, masterminded a brilliant – and slow – fighting retreat. So much so that Allied soldiers were still slogging their way through northern Italy when the Red Army had reached Berlin in April 1945. ‘Taking one mountain mass after another gains no tactical advantage,’ said Major General Frederick Walker, commander of the American 36th Division in December 1943, summing up the problem the Allies faced. ‘There is always another mountain mass behind with Germans on it.’i
British and other Empire forces, who had landed further south of Salerno just before the American landing, fared just as badly in Italy as the Americans. And by the early months of 1944 their difficulties – and the problems of the Allies as a whole – were encapsulated in the battle for the monastery of Monte Cassino, south of Rome. This Benedictine monastery, founded in the sixth century, was a vital part of the Germans' defensive barrier, the Gustav Line. The Allies had attempted to outflank these defences by launching an amphibious landing further north at Anzio in January 1944, but that had made little progress. Churchill was massively disappointed, famously saying that he had hoped ‘we were hurling a wild cat on the shore, but all we got was a beached whale.’ii
As for Monte Cassino, it was to take the Allies four separate attempts to take the monastery. The first was on 17 January 1944, and the Germans were not finally dislodged from the mountain until the morning of 18 May 1944 – four months later.
Joseph Klein was one of the German defenders, a member of the elite 1st Parachute Division, and he remembers thinking, ‘What nonsense!’ How can you send people up this mountain [to attack] – 45 degrees steep! So we often asked ourselves why they chose that way… They [the Allies] always attacked on the broadest side and on the more impossible terrain.’
In the end it was Polish troops, fighting within the British army, who finally captured Monte Cassino. They hoped their actions would demonstrate their fierce loyalty to the Allied cause. But the sad irony was that Churchill had already agreed with Stalin that nearly half of pre-war Poland – the very area where many of these Polish soldiers came from – would be given to the Soviet Union at the end of the war.
Churchill had also said that fighting the Axis powers in the Mediterranean would be to attack the ‘soft underbelly’ of the enemy. In the mountains of southern Italy, Allied troops experienced first hand the real truth, and learnt that the British Prime Minister couldn’t have been more wrong.
Quoted in Laurence Rees, World War Two: Behind Closed Doors
, BBC Books, 2009, p. 257ii
Quoted in Martin Gilbert, Road to Victory: Winston S. Churchill, 1941-1945
, Heinemann, 1990, p. 667