Monday, December 9, 2013

King Odoacer and Ancient Irredentism

It was on this day in 480 AD that Odoacer, King of Italy (who had earlier forced the abdication of the last emperor Romulus Augustulus and pensioned him off) occupied Dalmatia in what is now Croatia. The area then became part of his Kingdom of Italy but, of course, that was only the beginning. The irredentist cause in this area in particular is often not understood by outsiders or even many Italians, mostly because, unlike other areas farther north, the Italian population in Dalmatia has not been very large in modern times. However, the idea that Dalmatia should be Italian has very deep roots and, despite being interrupted on various occasions, recurs throughout history. Of course, originally, it was part of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire who were the first to give it the name Dalmatia after a local tribe (Emperor Diocletian even had a magnificent palace there). After the fall of the Roman Empire it became part of the original Kingdom of Italy under Odoacer on December 9, 480 AD. Later this became the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy under King Theodoric the Great who replaced Odoacer and Dalmatia was included in that as well. Later it was contested by the Croats, Hungarians, Byzantines and even raided by the Mongols. However, it had been part of the Kingdom of Italy in the Dark Ages and was restored to Italian rule in the Middle Ages when it became part of the maritime empire of the Republic of Venice. After the decline and defeat of Venice it became part of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy and when that fell was absorbed by the Austrian Empire, later Austria-Hungary and grouped with Croatia. However, even in Austria-Hungary it was always listed separately from Croatia in the list of the territories of the Kingdom of Hungary (in union with the Austrian Empire). It was then occupied by the modern Kingdom of Italy during World War II but the final status of it was still disputed during the short-life of the Independent State of Croatia under the nominal reign of Prince Aimone of Aosta. Since then it has been part of Yugoslavia and now Croatia.

Friday, November 29, 2013

General Alessandro Pirzio Biroli

Alessandro Pirzio Biroli was one of the most accomplished (and later controversial) Italian soldiers of World War II. He was born in Bologna on July 23, 1877 into a family of noted explorers. An athletic youth, he was a particularly skilled swordsman and won the silver medal in fencing at the 1908 Olympic Games in London. He joined the army as a young man, served in the First World War and by 1918 was promoted to commanding officer of the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment. In 1921 he was assigned to the General Division in Padua and has his first experience with the new Fascist movement. A short time later, however, he was sent to head the military mission to Ecuador, remaining there until 1927. After returning to Italy he was made commander of the Monte Nero Division in 1932 and in 1933 was promoted to command the V Trieste Corps, a post he held until 1935. During the Second Italo-Abyssinian War he commanded the colorful Eritrean Colonial Corps. His men fought with such vigor that they were often employed as assault troops during the campaign, in spite of their training being somewhat outdated and the fact that they were often poorly equipped. This was due to a combination of the skill of their general and the tenacity of the Eritrean colonial troops who had a particular zeal for fighting the Ethiopians, their traditional enemies, who were always threatening to conquer them. For Biroli, the high point of the campaign was his capture of Dese which had formerly been the military headquarters of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

Emerging from the war with a military record of success, though with some the fact that he commanded African troops meant he might not always have the reputation he deserved, General Biroli continued in the colonies, serving for a year as Governor of Amhara province, the native land of the original Ethiopians, in Italian East Africa (the combined name for Eritrea, Somalia and Abyssinia). When the Kingdom of Italy entered World War II, General Biroli saw action on the Balkan front, taking command of the Ninth Army in 1941, leading it in the latter stages of the war with Greece. After the Greek surrender, General Biroli entered the most controversial phase of his career, being assigned as military governor of the Kingdom of Montenegro, a post he held until 1943. A firm believer in the imperial legacy and destiny of Italy, Biroli was convinced that it was their duty to bring Roman civilization to the backward lands of the Balkans and he would tolerate no opposition to this mission. He was also disgusted by the contrasting reputations of the German and Italian soldiers with the Germans always viewed as the harsh, brutally efficient warriors and the Italians as the casual, fun-loving “nice guys”. As far as the locals were concerned, the appointment of Biroli as governor certainly meant, ‘no more mister nice guy’.

In a pamphlet distributed to his men, General Biroli encouraged his Italian troops to deal with any opposition harshly, reminding them that “It is the same people against whom we fought for centuries on the shores of the Adriatic.” He did not see only the present conflict but also the Slavs who had fought for Austria-Hungary against Italy in the First World War, the Turks and their Slavic subjects who fought the Italian city-state of Venice and all the way back to the barbarian tribes first subdued by the Roman legions thousands of years earlier. Enemy partisans were dealt with severely and their friends, family and associates often suffered along with them. Adolf Hitler was certainly impressed and awarded General Biroli the Knight Grand Cross of the German Eagle, a rare award for anyone much less a foreigner not of the highest military rank. However, in all fairness to General Biroli, it should also be remembered that World War II in the Balkans was an extremely brutal affair all around. Throughout history, even to our own time, it is a region where mercy is so rarely given that few expect it. The communist enemies he was fighting were every bit as brutal as he was and quite often much more so.

The Italian armistice of 1943 marked the end of his military career. The general who had fought red guerillas in Montenegro and led African troops to victory in Ethiopia retired to private life and died in Rome on May 20, 1962.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Italian Air Offensive in the Middle East

Many may not be aware of this (I have an entire shelf full of books on Italian military history in my library and I was unaware of it) but in the early days of World War II, planes of the Regia Aeronautica carried out a record-breaking, long-range bombing raid on British installations on the east side of the Arabian peninsula in the Persian Gulf. Stripped down and loaded with extra fuel and launched from the Italian-held island of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean, on October 19, 1940 a force of four Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.82 bombers attacked the British Protectorate of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, damaging the local American-operated oil refineries. The bombers also hit Dhahran, Saudi Arabia but that had very little impact. These areas were taken by complete surprise as the British certainly never expected an attack to come so far from the front-lines. The planes made their bombing run and were able to return successfully to land in Italian East Africa, setting down in Eritrea. It was not an extremely crucial attack as there was not much damage that only four bombers could do and those stripped down to be flying fuel cans, however, in did cause a panic and sent the message to the British high command that there were no safe areas and that the armed forces of Italy could reach out over incredible distances to strike at them wherever they were. Because of this, Allied forces had to divert resources to defend areas that they never would have thought would have been in any danger -and most honestly were not, but still, because of the raid on Bahrain, the Italians had proven that they could reach the British in some of their most vulnerable areas so that action had to be taken.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On This Day in History

On this day in 1812 the Servant of God Maria Cristina of Savoy, daughter of the King of Piedmont-Sardinia and Queen consort of the Two-Sicilies was born. Support her cause for canonization!

Queen Maria Cristina

Her Cause Started

Support her Cause

Monday, November 11, 2013

Italians on the Western Front

It was on this day in 1918 that the guns on the western front fell silent at the end of World War I. Many nations celebrate this as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day or, as it later became known in America, Veterans Day. Everyone familiar with World War I knows that this most prominent area of operations was the western front, stretching from the Belgian coast, down through France and ending at the Swiss border. However, not too many are aware of the Italian presence on the western front which actually predates official Italian entry in the Great War. Peppino Garibaldi, grandson of the famous Giuseppe Garibaldi, a man driven to fight for Italia Irredenta, led 4,000 Italian volunteers in a mass enlistment of the French Foreign Legion to join the war on the western front. This was in the winter of 1914-1915. When the Kingdom of Italy joined the war later in 1915, they left to join the Regio Esercito, most going into the Alpi and Re Brigades. Even then, many continued to wear their red shirts underneath their uniforms in honor of "The Thousand" nationalist volunteers of Giuseppe Garibaldi from the last century. In late 1917 the Kingdom of Italy sent the Corpo Truppe Ausiliarie in Francia to serve on the western front, which was a collection of labor battalions to aid in preparing trenches, gun emplacements, fortifications and other such jobs. Later, in the summer of 1918 the Kingdom of Italy also dispatched the II Corps, a complete combat unit with full artillery and even air support. These Italian troops saw fierce fighting in the last stages of the war, fighting alongside the French, British and Americans in stopping the last German offensive in the Bois de Reims sector and then going on, with the other Allies, in the final offensive that crushed the German front line and ultimately forced them to seek an armistice. Many Italians displayed great heroism in these brutal engagements, many were killed and many were wounded. They should never be forgotten.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Early Unsung Success in Africa

Throughout World War II, the royal armed forces of Italy were always at a great disadvantage, fighting with undersupplied armies, outdated weapons and in areas that were rarely given top priority. However, in spite of all these difficulties, the courage and tenacity of the Italian soldiers, sailors and airmen were still able to upset the odds and win stunning victories. However, relatively few people (outside Italy at least) are often aware of these heroic battles. Sometimes they are left out of historical accounts altogether. For example, following the first Italian invasion of Egypt, when the British had broken the Italian forces (many of whom were colonial troops) and sweeping across Egypt most accounts state only that the British held back out of caution or stopped from sheer exhaustion and this allowed time for the arrival of the German Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel which then saved the day and turned the tide of battle. However, that is not the whole truth. The British were actually pushing on quite aggressively to destroy all that remained of the shattered Italian forces and completely crush the remaining Italian front in Cyrenaica. They did not succeed because of a stunning victory won by a totally outmatched group of Italian soldiers who did nothing less than save the Italian army from total disaster.

M11/39 medium tank
On December 9, 1940 the Italian Tummar posts destroyed fourteen British tanks, buying precious time for colonial forces in the area. When the British attacked with their armored forces, consisting of the heavily armored Matilda tanks, the Italian “Maletti Group” rushed in to stop them with totally outmatched M11/39 tanks dismissed by so many as practically useless. Yet, in spite of their deficiencies these Italian M11/39’s managed to destroy 35 of the 57 British Matildas. It was a spectacular feat of arms and due entirely to the courage and skill of the individual Italian tank crews and commanders.

Later, on January 24, 1941 the former commander of the Sirte Division, General Valentino Babini, rushed into service the newly organized Special Armored Brigade (“Brigata Corazzato Speciale”) which managed the seemingly impossible task of halting the British offensive, if only temporarily. The British were driving forward with an awesome attack force of some 177 tanks and the Italian Special Armored Brigade managed to totally destroy or disable 21 of them; a rather spectacular feat given how vastly outmatched the Italian forces were. The first year of the war had been a terrible one for the Italian forces in north Africa, without question, and yet, thanks to hard fought actions like these, the front in Cyrenaica was saved from total collapse. The 10th Army had been practically destroyed but because of the brave men who made huge sacrifices and stood down vastly superior enemy forces, the remaining troops were able to fall back to safety, reform, reorganize and before the British could achieve total victory the first units of the Afrika Korps had arrived and the initiative in the desert shifted to the Axis powers.

It is amazing what a handful of even outmatched M11 tanks can do with enough skill and courage driving them into battle.

The Day He Came to Office

It was on this day in 1922 that HM King Vittorio Emanuele III appointed Benito Mussolini prime minister of Italy. Sometime in the, hopefully, not too distant future, I will be writing an article on this as in spite of all the time that has gone by since then it remains one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented points in all of Italian history. Whatever you think about it, the truth is probably not what you have heard.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Meeting at Teano

It was on this day in 1860 that HM King Vittorio Emanuele II met Giuseppe Garibaldi, commander of "The Thousand" and conqueror the Two-Sicilies at Teano. Garibaldi handed over the south to the King and hailed him as the King of Italy which was an historic moment for the Italian nation. Garibaldi had been a republican his entire life but he put nationalism ahead of his own ideology and took the hand of the King for the sake of the unity and independence of Italy and the Italian people.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Tripoli Becomes Italian

It was on this day in 1912 that the Kingdom of Italy officially took possession of Tripoli on the north African coast from the Turkish Ottoman Empire; securing the Italian "Fourth Shore".

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Bosnian Crisis

It was on this day in 1908 that Austria-Hungary annexed the nominally Ottoman Turkish province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, sparking the Bosnian crisis, one of the events which led up to the outbreak of the Great War, particularly because of the humiliation suffered by the Russian Empire over the affair. The lack of trust and ill-will created between Austria-Hungary and Russia is usually all that is taken away from this event, however, it was also a major reason for the ultimate break-up of the Triple Alliance of Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary. This is not often talked about but failing to mention it reveals an anti-Italian prejudice because it disproves the long-held accusation of the Kingdom of Italy "betraying" the other countries of the Triple Alliance by staying out of World War I in 1914 and then joining the war the following year against Austria-Hungary and later Germany.

This is important to understand because it was not Rome that broke its word to Vienna but rather Vienna that first broke its word to Rome. The issue was the annexation of Bosnia. When the Kingdom of Italy joined the Triple Alliance, which was really a defensive alliance of the three monarchies involved rather than a political pact between countries with a shared agenda, it was recognized that there were still outstanding territorial disputes between Italy and Austria-Hungary concerning the Italian-populated lands originally taken from the Republic of Venice that Austria-Hungary still occupied. According to the Triple Alliance agreement, if Austria-Hungary made any territorial gains elsewhere, these Italian-populated territories were supposed to be returned to the Kingdom of Italy in compensation. Obviously, the annexation of Bosnia was a major territorial acquisition and yet when Italy expected Austria-Hungary to live up to the terms of their agreement and reunite the Italian populated lands to Italy, Austria-Hungary refused.

Italy was not about to overlook such a violation of their agreement and so, from that time on, did not feel bound by the Triple Alliance any more since Austria-Hungary had violated their agreement. Of course, there were other reasons for Italy not going to war alongside Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1914 but this was a major point for the Italian government. It should be remembered and should be more well known today. It is still unfortunate what happened to Austria-Hungary in World War I, it did not deserve to be 'carved up' out of existence, but the honor of the Kingdom of Italy has been unfairly criticized because of this incident and for that reason the facts should be made known. The Triple Alliance agreement was broken but it was not broken in 1914 and it was not the Kingdom of Italy that broke it.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Start of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War

It was on this day in 1935 that the Second Italo-Abyssinian War began when Italian forces under General Emilio De Bono invaded the Abyssinian empire. Contrary to what you have probably heard, it was not a war that the Kingdom of Italy started, although, without doubt, Mussolini was ready to pounce at any chance to avenge the defeat of Adowa and to retaliate for the slights of the Abyssinian government against Italy. It started as a result of a dispute in which there was a clash over an Italian outpost that had been standing for years without protest (or perhaps even the notice) of the Abyssinian government. The Italian garrison of a few hundred Somali troops clashed with an Abyssinian (Ethiopian) column of over a thousand. Later, the Ethiopians claimed the Italian-Somali troop had attacked them -which would seem not only unnecessary but suicidal. There is also no doubt that the Ethiopians had been modernizing and building up their military strength for years and, after obtaining Italian support in joining the League of Nations when no one else thought they should be allowed in, Ethiopia had shunned Italy and dealt with all foreign powers except the Italians. A clash of arms was simply inevitable.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Defeat is Victory for Carlo Emanuele III

It was on this day in 1744 that the battle of Madonna dell'Olmo was fought between the forces of King Carlo Emanuele III and the combined armies of France and Spain. Although he was outnumbered, suffered more losses and was forced to concede the battlefield, it was King Carlo Emanuele III who was really victorious in the end. He lost the battle but it proved to be unimportant because, thanks to his strategic thinking and foresight, it was his goals that were accomplished rather than those of his enemies. The clever Savoy king had set up a situation that brilliantly ensured that he would be successful no matter who won the battle of Madonna dell'Olmo. The real key was Cuneo, which the Franco-Spanish forces had besieged as the last obstacle before penetrating deep into Piemontese territory. King Carlo Emanuele III called out the national militia to harass their supply lines and sent out his army to fight the enemy away from the city, distracting them and delaying them. The situation was arranged with such skill that the outcome of the battle did not matter at all. Simply be delaying the French and Spanish with a fight elsewhere, the King was able to evacuate the sick and wounded from Cuneo, send them relief supplies and by the time the enemy returned to focus on the siege, winter weather would have forced them to call off the operation and retreat anyway. There are few other examples in which a battle could be lost and yet the overall situation be arranged so brilliantly to the effect that the loser ended up being the real winner. The French and Spanish had to re-cross the Alps to avoid being snowed in and Piedmont was safe. Even with a lost battle, thanks to his skillful strategy, King Carlo Emanuele III had saved his country from invasion.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Salò Republic - Hardcore Disaster

It was on this day in 1943 that the Italian Social Republic was founded, after a group of SS paratroopers broke Mussolini out from his house arrest and took him away to Germany and then German-occupied northern Italy. To this day, a great many Fascists have a very nostalgic view of the RSI as the "pure" fascist state without all of those pesky "concessions" to the monarchy and the Catholic Church that existed in the past (and which Fascists once boasted proudly of as respect for tradition). However, the RSI was not so much a "pure" Fascist state as it was a throwback to the socialist roots of Benito Mussolini; anti-royal, anti-clerical and egalitarian with state ownership of all businesses with more than a hundred employees. He also agreed to vast territorial losses, mostly to Germany, giving away what Italians had struggled for over many generations. This is something many people do not understand when they marvel at how successful Fascism seemed to be when Mussolini first came to power in the Kingdom of Italy. This was due entirely to the great shift Mussolini made toward the right in order to gain support among the conservatives and because the economic facts of life simply allowed for no other option. Mussolini, born and raised a socialist, started out on the left, was cast out by them, started his own mostly leftist movement, then lurched to the right and when the RSI was founded, reverted back toward the left again.

When the Fascists first came to power, and the time when so many around the world viewed Mussolini as a miracle worker and master statesman, they actually enacted policies that were the opposite of what Il Duce himself had championed for so long. Taxes were lowered, regulations on business were actually cut, non-Fascist unions were broken up and the Fascist unions were to keep in cooperation with the industrialists to maximize production and create as many jobs as possible. Mussolini talked about and bragged about his ideal of totalitarianism but, when thrust into power, he found that things worked best when businessmen ran their own businesses and when taxes were cut and regulations were slashed the economy boomed and Mussolini and the Fascist Party got the credit. However, taking this to heart, Mussolini later moved back in the direction he always favored, raised taxes, enacted more regulations and created more social programs which worked together to bring the economic progress of the early years to a halt. It was basically a case of trial and error and any observer could plainly see the policies which brought about the most success under the Fascist regime and which ones did not. After smashing the socialists and holding dictatorial power, Mussolini could afford to do what worked even if it pleased ownership more than labor.

All of this changed with the creation of the RSI. This new regime swung hard back to the left with a program of socialization that Mussolini insisted on. Not surprisingly, the result was a disaster with most industries refusing to cooperate or simply being shut down completely. The effort to win over the life-long socialists and communists within the labor movement was a completely wasted effort by Mussolini and all he succeeded in doing was alienated the people who had supported him in the past as their shield against socialist chaos and internationalist communist subversion. The RSI was not "pure" Fascism but could best be described as angry Fascism, a Fascism that was wounded, clearly doomed but which was still clawing away at friend and foe alike in an effort to survive. It was the the death rattle of the career of Mussolini. It was also, and this fact is lost on many, the first republican government to claim jurisdiction over the whole of the Italian peninsula since the unification of Italy. Those who choose to blame the Italian monarchy for Mussolini and Fascism fail to remember that the first totally Fascist state in Italy was a republic that condemned the lawful King of Italy as a "traitor" for removing Mussolini from power. For all of their supposed anti-Fascism, it seems the post-war Italian republicans and the Fascists of the RSI actually had quite a bit in common.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Prince Vittorio Emanuele, Count of Turin

Prince Vittorio Emanuele, Count of Turin was born in Turin on November 24, 1870 to Prince Amadeo of Savoy, Duke of Aosta and Maria Victoria al Pozzo della Cisterna. King Vittorio Emanuele II of Italy was his grandfather. Shortly before his birth the Duke of Aosta had been elected King Amadeo I of Spain and shortly after his arrival the family departed for Madrid where the little prince was given the title of Infante of Spain. That, as we know, did not last long and the vision of his grandfather the King of Italy to place royals of the House of Savoy on as many Mediterranean thrones as possible came to nothing when the (rather reluctant) King Amadeo I declared Spain to be ungovernable and abdicated, after which the First Spanish Republic was established (Boo! Hiss!). Being only a baby at the time, it is doubtful these major world events made much of an impression on the little former Infante of Spain. Back home in Italy with his family, he had a relatively normal childhood for a prince of the House of Savoy. As was usual, he was given an education that took for granted a military career and which emphasized dynastic duty and the long history and past glories of the House of Savoy.

The Count of Savoy took all of that very much to heart and grew into a dashing young man who determined to become a cavalry officer. Toward that end, he studied at the Military Academy of Modena, graduating in 1889 with the rank of second lieutenant. He was first assigned to the Nice Cavalry regiment of the Royal Italian Army and then served as a lieutenant in the “Piemonte Reale Cavalleria”. The Italians, as most know, have a reputation for being a proud and somewhat emotional people and the Count of Turin certainly seems to have inherited those traits, combined with his education about his family history and the role of the Savoy as the guardians of Italian honor. All of this set the stage for the incident in his life he was to become most famous for. It all came about in France where Prince Henri of Orleans, son of the Duke of Chartres had written a number of articles in “Le Figaro” concerning the recent Italo-Abyssinian War and the devastating Italian loss at the battle of Adowa. A little background is in order.

During this battle, unfamiliarity with the terrain and misinformation provided by guides in the pay of the enemy, led a small Italian colonial column of 18,000 troops (mostly African natives with Italian officers) to become separated and then attacked piecemeal and overwhelmed by a massive Ethiopian army of well over 100,000. In the aftermath, many of the survivors on the Italian side were massacred and/or tortured and mutilated. Those who were taken prisoner were not released at the close of hostilities but held for ransom (which was paid secretly by King Umberto I of Italy to the Ethiopian Emperor). It horrified public opinion in Italy and brought down the government of the long-time political powerhouse Francesco Crispi (a proud and ambitious veteran of “The Thousand”). Now, enter Prince Henri of Orleans. Throughout his life Prince Henri had proven himself to be a bold and intrepid traveler as well as a condescending man. He was most known for being an inveterate Anglophobe, writing and uttering many a diatribe insulting and condemning Great Britain in the harshest terms. Yet, oddly enough, the British seemed to celebrate him in spite of that. He would learn that Italians responded quite differently to being insulted.

In his articles about the Italo-Abyssinian War and its aftermath, particularly regarding the Italians who had been taken prisoner, Prince Henri essentially dismissed them all as being so many cowards. In doing so he also, probably inadvertently, insulted the Ethiopians as well by taking the attitude that only inept cowards could have possibly lost a battle to Africans, no matter how vastly outnumbered they were. The Count of Turin happened to read these rather explosive articles and was thoroughly outraged. The honor of Italian soldiers had been thoroughly insulted by this French prince and if no one else was prepared to do anything about it; he would. The British might have tolerated this sort of thing, but the Count of Turin would not and accepted the role of champion on the part of Italian soldiers everywhere. He demanded satisfaction and demanded Prince Henri retract his insults and apologize. The proud Frenchman of course refused and the Count of Turin immediately challenged him to a good, old fashioned duel.

The time and place were decided; August 15, 1897 in Vaucresson at Versailles. The weapon chosen was the sword since, even though the French preferred to duel with pistols, the Italians felt this unworthy of princes deciding a matter of honor. In Italy, pistols were used by cuckolded husbands while nobles and the high born settled differences with the saber. So, at five o’clock in the morning, it began with the duel being supervised by Count Leontieff and Count Avogadro in the Bois de Marchechaux. The two had at each other and after five reprises the Count of Turin was victorious, inflicting a wound on Prince Henri’s abdomen that the doctors of both parties deemed serious enough to put the Prince at a disadvantage and so the match was awarded to the Count of Turin. All of Europe was rather enthralled by this showdown that seemed like a throwback to centuries past. In Italy, however, the Count of Turin became a national hero instantly and was celebrated across the country for his victory and for standing up for Italian honor. When he returned to his homeland he was met in Turin by King Umberto I who said, “I want to be the first to congratulate you with all my heart on the example you set and the success you scored.”

Prince Vittorio Emanuele would be a celebrity for the rest of his life thanks to that famous duel but, of course, it was not the sort of thing he made a habit of. The famous Italian poet and scholar Giovanni Pascoli even penned a little poem about the contest. The following year the Count of Turin went on a world tour, visiting New York in the United States, presenting the silver cup to the winner of the Count of Turin golf tournament at the Newport Country Club and went on to visit the Empire of Japan and the Qing Empire of China. He also continued in his military career, eventually rising to the position of commander-in-chief of all Italian cavalry. He commanded the Italian cavalry in World War I, which was rather the ‘last hurrah’ for that particular branch of service and, ironically enough, when it was over was awarded the Croix de guerre by the French Republic. Later, he retired from active duty and left Italy after the monarchy was abolished following World War II. He died in Brussels, four months after the proclamation of the Italian Republic, on November 24, 1946 at the age of 76. He had accomplished a lot in his life but he will always be most remembered as the Savoy royal who fought a duel in 1897 for the honor of the Italian army.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Longest Serving Armor

Possibly the longest serving tank in the armory of the Kingdom of Italy was the small, rugged Fiat 3000 light tank. It was the first tank model to be made in Italy and was the standard armored fighting vehicle for Italian forces after World War I up until almost the start of World War II. Based on the popular French Renault FT of the First World War, it was always more of a World War I tank than a World War II tank being, essentially, an armored machine gun unit. It began service in the Royal Italian Army in 1921 and served throughout the remaining years of the Kingdom of Italy. The original Fiat 3000 M21 was armed with two 6.5mm machine guns but the later Fiat 3000b of 1930 (or M30) was given a 37mm gun, along with a more powerful engine. It had a top speed of 21 kmh (13mph) and was protected by 6-16mm of armor plating and carried a crew of two; one driver and one gunner. When it was designed and built, it must be kept in mind, there was no intention of such a machine ever engaging another tank but, as had been the case with tanks in World War I, was designed to be an anti-infantry vehicle.

The Fiat 3000 saw extensive service in a variety of terrain. During the war for the pacification of Libya, these tanks were brought in to give Italian forces a clear advantage and they performed quite well. This was actually the first time anyone had used tanks in the deserts of north Africa, though it certainly would not be the last. The Fiat 3000 was also used in the conquest of Ethiopia and they were not the first in the country. Back before Ethiopia took a hostile attitude to the Kingdom of Italy, the Duke of Abruzzi had given a Fiat 3000 to the Ethiopian Empress as a gift. In 1928 supporters of the Empress tried to restore her to power and Emperor Haile Selassie, who had seized control of the country from the Empress, used the Italian tank she had been given against her forces. None were used by the Italian forces in the Spanish Civil War but there may have been one that found its way into the army of the Spanish republican forces Italy and the Spanish nationalists were fighting against. By the time World War II broke out, the Fiat 3000 was very much outdated and no longer fit for front-line service.

In spite of this fact, the material shortages Italy suffered throughout the war meant that some Fiat 3000’s had to be pressed into service again when Italy entered the war. A small number saw service in the rugged terrain of southern Albania and northern Greece, however they would have proven less than useless up against even the earliest models of British tanks that Italy was facing in north Africa at the time. They last saw service in 1943 during the Allied invasion of Sicily when Italy was so hard-pressed that many antiquated weapons, or any weapons of any sort, were thrown into the line in the desperate fight to stop the invaders. In some ways, the defense of Sicily must have seemed reminiscent of the First World War with the Allies coming ashore to be greeted by Italian troops wearing outdated uniforms including Adrian-style steel helmets such as were worn in World War I and equipped with World War I vintage artillery in some cases as well as a few Fiat 3000 light tanks. It was a hopeless fight and by that time they were hopelessly outdated and outclassed, as everyone knew, but still, some respect should be given to the little Fiat 3000 tanks for putting in so many years of service to Italy.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

St Pio and the Queen

Throughout most of her life, Queen Marie Jose of Italy could probably best be described as a dutiful Catholic rather than a devout one. She was sincere, she was faithful and she was raised with a great respect for the Catholic Church. It certainly helped shape her morality and her sense of compassion for the less fortunate. However, by her own admission, she was never zealous about her Christianity, not of a disposition to believe mystical or miraculous  things. She was the very open, tolerant, non-judgmental type of person and not the kind who dwelled excessively on sin, dogmas, angels or demons. Queen Marie Jose tended to view religion in an earth-bound way; be good and do good and you should be okay. Yet, she had a very significant spiritual encounter with a saint, famous in his own time, who embodied almost everything about Catholicism that the Queen did not. That man was Padre Pio, known today as St Pio of Pietrelcina. This was a man who was famously short-tempered, not one to suffer fools gladly, a man who could see into the souls of others, who bore the stigmata, the very wounds of Christ, and who had many miracles attributed to him even in his own lifetime. It was also not unknown for him to make the occasional prophecy.

Many, many people all over the world are familiar with St Pio of Pietrelcina. Even a great many who are not Catholics have at least heard of the man named Padre Pio. In all the discussions of his saintliness, however, his words of wisdom, his patience and obedience, even when treated harshly by disbelieving superiors in the Church, what is seldom mentioned is the fact that St Pio was a staunch Italian royalist and that he made some predictions concerning the Italian monarchy and the House of Savoy, each to Queen Marie Jose. The first occasion came when Princess Marie Jose of Piedmont visited Padre Pio in 1938, just out of curiosity. She had most likely heard of the future saint through her mother-in-law Queen Elena (a devoutly Catholic lady whose cause for canonization is also being considered). When Princess Marie Jose arrived, she was struck by the aroma of violets in the air even though there were no flowers around. In typical fashion, when Padre Pio was told that the Princess of Piedmont had arrived, he said he would see her but only after he finished hearing those who had come to confession. With Padre Pio, the Lord’s work came first and other visitors, princess or no princess, would have to wait.

When they two finally met, the future saint and the future Queen of Italy had a very long talk. Among other things, Padre Pio reassured the princess about her father, King Albert I of the Belgians, who had died not long before. The Princess confessed the fears she had about Mussolini and his Fascist government but what was most significant was what Padre Pio told her about what was to come. He predicted that there would soon be a terrible war (and as we know, World War II broke out in Europe only a short time later) and that “everything will end soon”. Later, Queen Marie Jose realized that what St Pio had been referring to was the end of the Italian monarchy and the end of the reign of the House of Savoy after a thousand years in power. Looking back, it seemed an obvious reference and yet, in 1938, it was quite a prediction to make. The Italian monarchy was one of a relative few to have survived the First World War and, indeed, after that conflict, on paper at least, the King of Italy was arguably the most powerful monarch in Europe. By 1938 the Kingdom of Italy had pacified rebels in Libya, conquered an old enemy in Ethiopia and helped the nationalists win the Spanish Civil War. Everything seemed to be going great and no one, at that time, would have predicted such a gloomy future.

That story and that famous meeting has aroused relatively little controversy. Another, however, involving the last Queen of Italy and a prophecy of St Pio is a little bit more divisive. I must stress that some people will undoubtedly dispute this, but here is the story: Queen Marie Jose began a correspondence with St Pio during her time in exile in Switzerland. In their exchange of letters, St Pio wrote that “the monarchy will return to Italy” and that one of her relatives would be King. Nothing controversial there, though certainly hopeful and encouraging. The controversy came next, with St Pio saying that the next King would not be of the senior Savoy-Carignano line that the Queen’s own son was from but that this line of the Royal Family would be “dried up like dry leaves on a tree”. Rather, he predicted, it would be a different branch of the House of Savoy that would see the Italian monarchy restored. This story, immediately upon being made known, was taken to mean that the Savoy family line of the Duke of Aosta would be the one to preside over the restoration of the Kingdom of Italy. And there was just one more, perhaps miraculous, event that Savoy-Aosta royalists could point to.

During the celebrations for the canonization of St Pio, the friars of his monastery invited Prince Aimone of Savoy-Aosta, rather than any officials of the Italian republican government, to attend. Down in the crypt they reveal for all to see a bas-relief showing St Pio preaching with a crowd of people facing him. More than a few people noticed immediately that one of the figures looked exactly like Prince Aimone at the age of about fifteen, wearing the Collar of the Annunciation and carrying the cross symbol of the House of Savoy. What is seemingly miraculous about this is that, at the time the bas-relief was made, when St Pio died, Prince Aimone was barely a year old. Yet, the resemblance of the image to the Prince that stood there was uncanny. Observers could only speculate that St Pio had influenced the artists at their work. Was this perhaps a sign from the saint, pointing out the man who would restore the Italian kingdom? We can only hope, and work and pray. Perhaps a pray for the intercession of St Pio of Pietrelcina would not go amiss?

See also: The Perfume of Violets
              The Prophecy of Padre Pio