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11 Comments | Vintage
Operation Achse – the German occupation of Italy and neutralization of its armed forces in the aftermath of Italy’s surrender to the Allies on 8 September 1943 – resulted in one million Italian servicemen being disarmed (415,000 in northern Italy, 102,000 in southern Italy, 265,000 in Greece and the Aegean islands, 165,000 in Yugoslavia, 60,000 in France), largely owing to the uncertainty and confusion caused by the flight of the government and high command from Rome, and the lack of clear instructions about how to deal with the former German ally. Italy did not formally declare war on Germany until over a month later, on 13 October, and the proclamation of the Armistice stated that hostilities against the Allies were to cease, but did not declare the Germans as enemies; the German commands, who had prepared their plans months in advance and already had troops stationed all over Italy, took advantage of the uncertainty that gripped local Italian commanders (and which they fuelled by cutting all lines of communication), some of whom were more concerned about ‘mantaining public order’ than about fending off a foreign invasion. In Turin, General Enrico Adami Rossi turned down offers by anti-Fascist leaders to fight together agains the Germans, and welcomed the latter with open arms (a month later, he would join the Italian Social Republic); General Gastone Gambara, who was sandwiched between the Germans and the Yugoslav partisans and considered the former as the lesser evil, did the same in Fiume (and also joined the RSI shortly thereafter). In Milan, General Vittorio Ruggero let secret services Colonel Candeloro De Leo, falsely claiming to be speaking on behalf of the Supreme Command (and soon to become yet another RSI officer), persuade him to allow the Germans to take the city undisturbed; in Naples, General Riccardo Pentimalli forbade gatherings “in order to avoid incidents with the Germans” and then fled, leaving his troops without orders.
In the Balkans, General Ezio Rosi, commander-in-chief of all Italian troops in Greece and Albania, negotiated an agreement that would allow his troops to keep personal weapons, hand over heavy weapons to the Germans, and go back to Italy undisturbed; but immediately thereafter, he was captured by a coup de main by German armor at his headquarters in Tirana, and his subordinates Lorenzo Dalmazzo (commander of the 9th Army) and Carlo Vecchiarelli (commander of the 11th Army, with headquarters in Athens) trusted German promises that since the war was over for Italy – as stated by the proclamation of the Armistice –, their troops would be repatriated if they handed over their weapons, and ordered their men to surrender all weapons. Instead, they and their soldiers were then rounded up and sent to Germany as prisoners. In this general collapse, attempts of resistance were brutally crushed and the ‘culprits’ often made to pay with their lives, as happened to General Antonio Gandin, massacred on Cephalonia with thousands of his men; General Enrico Chiminello, shot in Kuç (Albania) with over a hundred of his officers; Generals Alfonso Cigala Fulgosi, Salvatore Pelligra and Raffaele Policardi, all shot in Signj (Croatia) with another fifty officers; General Ferrante Gonzaga, gunned down at his command post near Salerno.
Of the 1,000,000 servicemen who were disarmed by the Germans, nearly 200,000 managed to escape before or during transportation to Germany, many of them joining the local Resistance groups; another 94,000, mostly (though not exclusively) blackshirts, accepted German offers to continue the war alongside the Axis, and either enlisted in the Wehrmacht as volunteers or joined the Italian Social Republic, created on 23 September. The remaining 700,000 men were sent to POW camps in Germany, Austria, Poland and Eastern Europe, where they were not classified as “prisoners of war” but rather with the ad-hoc designation of “Italian Military Internees”. The purpose of this legal technicality, made possible by the fact that they had been captured in a time when there was no formal state of war between Italy and Germany, was to deprive them of the protection afforded to prisoners of war by the Geneva Convention. Their treatment, while still leagues better than the one meted out to Soviet POWs, was much worse than the treatment of Western Allied prisoners; the IMIs were mostly used for forced labor in the German industry, receiving insufficient food, clothing, or medical assistance. During their captivity they were repeatedly pressured to join the Italian Social Republic, both by the Nazis and by Italian Fascists that came from Italy for this purpose, and some 100,000 gave in and enlisted in the RSI armed forces by the spring of 1944. The remaining 600,000 refused any cooperation, and thus remained in captivity till the end of the war; it has been estimated that between 40,000 and 50,000 of them died, mostly due to malnutrition, illness and harsh or dangerous working conditions.
Photo from Bundesarchiv.
And to think they had been allies just a few months before.
This is an interesting picture, it is what happened to my grandpa.
My grandpa was one of those Italian soldiers who were sent to the interment camps (not in this exact picture of course). He once told me that once a day they would get a potato, which was to be divded between him and 7 others. They took turns cutting the potato because if was your turn to cut it, everyone else was watching over your shoulder and if you cut it unevenly, you could catch a beating. Eventually, luckily for my grandpa a local baker’s son in Germany went to the camp to find a worker, and he ended up choosing my grandpa at random.
My great grandfather was an Italian Military Internee. He had to do forced labor until one day the Germans guarding his camp abandoned it, near the end of the war.
The Nazi’s treated their prisoners far better than Eisenhower ever did.
I’m from Bolzano, any chance you know the street name?
Weren’t Italy and Germany allies?
Anyone interested in the German occupation of Italy and life during this time period should try out the book “Beneath a Scarlet Sky” It is based on a true story story of the absolute incredible life of Pino Lella, a boy who works to smuggle Jews and down pilots thru the Alps to then being recruited at 18 to become the personal driver for Adolf Hitler’s left hand in Italy, General Hans Leyers. The book is really entertaining and keeps you on edge. I listened to the Audio book that kept me up for hours not wanting to stop to sleep. To this day I find myself recommending it to anyone I talk to that has an interest in WW2 history or even just wants a good book to read.
Watch the movie"Seven Beauties" about two Italian soldiers who are sent to Russia to fight alongside their German allies. They desert, are captured by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp.
are they ally?
My take away is never give up your weapons. History is a great teacher. For reference, The Shot Heard Around The World