Marco Patricelli: CUTTING THE ROPE - 9 September 1943. Story of an escape

Marco Patricelli
Ed. Solferino

Even those who had not secretly listened to Allied radio understood that something big had happened on the afternoon of 8 September 1943 in Rome. […] At the Quirinale there was an anomalous traffic of black and dull grey-green cars. All senior officers, especially generals, arrived and left. So many "Greeks" at once were a clear signal that there were meetings to be held and decisions to be made, important ones. With these words the author, former professor of Contemporary European History at the Gabriele d'Annunzio University of Chieti, introduces us to this essay of his, where the behavior of the political and military leaders in a of the most dramatic days in the history of Italy.

Immediately after the announcement, given by General Eisenhower, at 18 pm, on Radio Algiers, of the signing of the armistice by Italy, an emergency meeting was called at the Quirinale, which included the presence of the king, the head of the Badoglio government and the highest political and military offices. Prince Umberto was kept in the dark about everything “In the House of Savoy, as per strict tradition, one reigns at a time and for him there is no room even for supporting involvement in such a serious moment”. To tell the truth, even the leaders of the Navy and the Air Force, despite being aware of the ongoing negotiations, did not yet know of the signing of the armistice (and the related armistice conditions), which took place in Cassibile on 3 September and, thus, for 5 days, "they had continued to issue orders and directives in logical contrast with the state of things, starting from the planned last mission of the Royal Navy to hopelessly counteract what would be the Allied landing in Salerno". Furthermore, since “the Allies had reserved the right to decide the moment of the proclamation”, there were those, like General Castellano - the one who signed the capitulation, in Cassibile, on 3 September - “he had independently come to the conclusion that the short armistice would not have been made official before 12 September”. Hence Badoglio's vain attempts, once he learned of the Allies' intentions to announce the signing of the armistice on 8 September, to move the event to the 12th, referring to the “rapid occupation of Rome by the Germans and establishment of a German-fascist government”. But it fell to Badoglio, at the king's urging during the meeting, to go to the EIAR headquarters and, from there, make the fateful announcement, despite the fact that in the morning the king himself had assured a representative of the German government of his absolute loyalty of Italy to the Axis.

It was 19.42pm on September 8th. “It is not the news of Italy's disengagement that amazes the Germans, but the way in which it happens”. The Germans, in fact, had the plan to be applied in the event of Italy's betrayal has been ready for months, and so, a few minutes after the announcement, “they overflowed into Italy, spreading from Alto Adige towards the south”. On the Italian side, there was OP 44, which contained the provisions for the higher commands of the armed forces regarding the attitude to be taken towards the Germans after the armistice. But none of the military and political leaders took responsibility for making it operational, in practice “Chief of Staff General Ambrosio wanted the government's authorization and Badoglio did not want to take on the responsibility of provoking the Germans. The peripheral commands in turn demanded orders from the Supreme Command which did not arrive". Chaos was inevitable!

However, there were those who, like General Gioacchino Solinas, commander of the 21st Grenadier Division of Sardinia, in the absence of clear orders, on his own initiative, at 22.10pm, on the Via Ostiense, opened fire against the German column. But for a general who did himself honour, deciding to defend Rome there were others, the highest leaders of the armed forces, who, instead, decided to abandon Rome, towards Pescara, together with the royal family. “Around Rome there was shooting, fighting, dying. In the palaces of power, however, luggage and suitcases were prepared and car engines were warmed up."

Badoglio was terrified of falling into the hands of the Germans. Prince Umberto, “the only one who expresses doubts and would like to stay in Rome”, will later say that the head of government “He suffered from uncontrollable nervous depression.” The king, however, will maintain that his decision to leave Rome was made “to create a legitimate government in complete freedom, rebuild an army, as immediately happened, preventing the soldiers of the Italian divisions remaining in the South from being considered prisoners of war”. It is also true that Badoglio had reassured him that, before leaving the city, he had given the necessary instructions. But unfortunately that wasn't the case. “General Carboni, commander of the Rome square, had disappeared for a good part of the day on that fateful September 9th. He was not in command and did not command even though it was his precise duty. The departments, disconnected from each other, acted autonomously and in evident confusion, bound by nebulous central directives and the lack of precise orders, tossed around by events, with former allies behaving like enemies". Badoglio, like other officers, had gotten rid of his uniform.

The convoy, which left Rome, stopped in the late morning at the castle of Crecchio, where the royals and their entourage were guests, for lunch, of the hosts, the Dukes of Bovino, and then set off again around 15pm in the direction of Pescara , where, in the airport, a Crown Council was held. “On this occasion the consilium regis decides not what should be done to save Italy from chaos, but how to save the leaders of the state: not with planes, the most logical choice, but with ships, to achieve an unspecified locality between Bari and Brindisi". The ships, made available by Admiral De Courten, Minister of the Navy, were the cruiser Scipio Africanus, and the corvettes Scimitar e Bayonet, anchored respectively in Taranto, Brindisi and Pula.

In Rome, meanwhile, “there is a vertical collapse of the system. The ministries, Paolo Monelli describes, had sent all the employees home, no office answered the telephone, at certain military commands papers and archives were burned". Sul Bayonet, on the night between 9 and 10 September they embarked from the pier of Ortona - which the author defines "the dock of shame"- the king and queen, while Badoglio and De Courten were already on board: in all, 57 people. “The hunt for civilian clothes has begun. […] Pieces of uniforms full of insignia and medals are left on the pier, jackets and trousers from refined military tailors are exchanged for modest clothes for everyday use".

The court, with its entourage, arrived in Brindisi, chosen “for fear of a Luftwaffe attack after the sighting by the German plane which had probably reported the position of the two Italian warships”. From here, first the king and then Badoglio sent their first message to the Italians on 11 September. “The kingdom of Vittorio Emanuele governed by Badoglio is a remnant of Italy: Sardinia, Bari, Brindisi, Lecce and Taranto. Everything else was occupied either by the Anglo-Americans or by the Germans after the proclamation of the Italian surrender."

This was the result of the management of a ruling class certainly not made up of heroes and who “she had been capable of doing the impossible feat in three days of dissolving something like seventy-two divisions among those in line on September 8th”. This was the result of the management of men who “still on Wednesday 8 September they had in their hands all the keys to prevent an out-of-control implosion, and on Thursday 9 they did not have the strength either to control or direct the events. Unfortunately for them and, above all unfortunately for the nation, they were neither strategists nor statesmen".

Was the act that that ruling class carried out on September 9th an escape or a transfer, a rational choice or an unfortunate resolution? The author has no doubts. If the king's intentions “were to protect the supreme sense of the State, he should not have brought with him the head of the government or even the military leaders, on whom he would have had to impose his will as head of that same state and as supreme commander, ordering them to stay in Rome and fight, because this was their job and their assignment". But this didn't happen. " personal responsibility"In fact, “it required physical and moral sacrifice, which an inadequate ruling class was unable to put on the scales of history”.

That from Rome was therefore an escape which, as Elena Aga Rossi claims, he had “the driving force is the need for personal safety and not the interest of the nation”. He was therefore missed by that ruling class “the awareness of the role and the dignity of that role was lost in the name of privilege".

Gianlorenzo Capano