There is some question about whether Winston Churchill ever described Italy as the “soft underbelly” of Axis Europe, but from the autumn of 1942, he certainly saw the country as the most vulnerable part of the occupied continent.
Churchill was confident that fascist Italy would crumble if a direct and strategic attack was mounted by a well-coordinated army, navy and air force. Not all Allied decision-makers were convinced, however. Many doubted the wisdom of invading Sicily, let alone the possibility of continuing the campaign northwards across mainland Italy. High-ranking US military chiefs preferred to conserve resources for a decisive invasion across the English Channel, scheduled for the spring of 1944.
Several convincing arguments were put forward against invading Italy. A mechanized army would be vulnerable to the challenges of central Italy’s mountainous terrain, expending great energies for little to no gain. Moreover, a successful invasion depended on knocking Italy out of the war, and the Germans deciding their ally was not worth defending at all costs. Even if these gambles paid off, the Allies could only hope to achieve a small reward for their pains. Rome was a minor prize for the anticipated loss of human life and manpower, even if it did contain the highly symbolic Vatican City, the holy heart of Catholicism. In addition, an impoverished and hungry Italian population could become an unsustainable drain on the Allies’ limited supply of imported food and fuel.
Churchill, undeterred, was insistent. He believed it was crucial for the Allies to attack southern Europe in order to take control of the Mediterranean. This would enable military and civilian shipping, maintain the momentum of the war by keeping Allied forces in contact with the enemy and, more urgently, draw German forces away from the Eastern Front to relieve pressure on the Red Army.
Eventually, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was more willing to listen to the British prime minister than to his own advisors. Allied planners at the Trident Conference in Washington in May 1943 eventually assented to an invasion of the island of Sicily as a compromise. Whether or not the campaign would continue on to the Italian mainland was left undecided. US General Eisenhower, they directed, would decide on the best policy after the Germans had been driven out of Sicily.
In 1943, Italy was ruled by Hitler’s principal ally in Europe, the fellow fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini had joined the war only reluctantly halfway through 1940, believing that his country still needed two more years to fully prepare. Nevertheless, Italy’s war aims complemented those of Nazi Germany. Mussolini had pursued a policy of aggressive expansion in southern Europe; without serious opposition, he had occupied the southeast corner of Vichy France, the French island of Corsica, Greece and part of the Balkans. Until his defeat in North Africa in 1943, Mussolini’s goal had been to establish hegemony over the Mediterranean and challenge the British Empire in Africa and the Middle East.
The Italian peninsula and islands were defended not only by the country’s own (large but ill-equipped) army, but also by a great number of German troops. The German troops were under the nominal command of the Italian generals, but in reality they were controlled by German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring from his base in Frascati on the outskirts of Rome.
Although Mussolini had enjoyed absolute power for eleven years, his success was built on his personal charisma, his ruthless use of force and his conquests abroad. By 1943 the Italian leader’s popularity was on the wane, while his political position ultimately depended on retaining the approbation of the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III. Hitler himself was unsure whether he could rely on the strength of Mussolini and his Italian allies. As defeat in North Africa approached, Hitler made contingency plans for the defence of Italy in any eventuality. Three new units were created expressly to serve in Italy, and two experienced existing divisions were dispatched from France, some of them crossing the Strait of Messina to reinforce defences in Sicily.
Preparations for the forthcoming invasion of Sicily, codenamed Husky, had to be swift: maintaining an element of surprise was essential. Given Italy was only one possible military target in the Mediterranean, if the Allies could convince the Germans that their attack was planned elsewhere, they would have the upper hand. An ingenious plan, Operation Mincemeat, was devised to persuade the Germans that even if there were an invasion in Sicily it would be a diversionary campaign, while the main attack would come in Greece or Sardinia. The success of Husky was to be heavily influenced by two factors: how well Sicily was defended, and how well their task forces and armies would perform in the chaos of battle.
Italy changed sides in World War II not for moral reasons but pragmatic ones. It hoped to be siding with the winners, who might do less damage to the country than their erstwhile friends, the Germans. The Allies treated the Italians with a mixture of indifference and distain: the years of fascism and collaboration with Hitler were not easily forgiven or forgotten.
Switching sides mid-war was a risk that had harsh consequences for Italy. Most ordinary Italians thought the September armistice meant peace – that the Germans would take it as a signal to withdraw from their country – but that was not the policy issuing from Berlin. In fact, the Germans expected the Italians to surrender. They had long regarded them as duplicitous allies and had made plans accordingly. Overnight, Italian land north of the shifting front line became occupied. German paratroopers entered Rome at the same time as the king and Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio fled the capital.
Having been given no instructions from its government, the Italian military found itself at the mercy of the Wehrmacht. Soldiers who supported Mussolini and fascism were welcomed into the German ranks; all the others were faced with the choice of resisting attempts to disarm them, deserting to join the partisans or accepting their fate. More than 250,000 Italian soldiers were taken prisoner by the Germans and sent to labour camps in central Europe, along with 50,000 Allied prisoners of war. Huge quantities of weapons and vehicles were impounded, although the Italian navy managed to evade capture. The Italian soldiers who chose to fight back – an estimated 20,000 – were massacred by the same combat forces they had been fighting alongside just days before. Italian troops abroad in Greece and the Balkans were treated even more harshly. Around five thousand of them surrendered to their captors and were executed in cold blood. Only on 13 October 1943, too late to be of much use, did the Italian government declare war on Nazi Germany and join the subsequent battles using what manpower and weaponry remained.
Despite the cost, the change of sides meant Italy could recover some of its national self-respect. The partisan movement that flourished in occupied northern Italy would help lay the foundations for the new Italian republic at the end of the war.
Top image: Cityscape of Florence © SerrNovik/iStock