Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

The Surrender of Italy: The Allies’ Bungled Opportunity

Gen. George S. Patton called it “the unforgiving minute”– that moment in combat when opportunity for success at little or no cost occurs – a moment that must be seized boldly and swiftly or it is lost, with terrible consequences. Such a moment occurred following Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s overthrow on July 25, 1943. New Prime Minister Marshal Pietro Badoglio promised Italy would honor its Axis commitment. No one believed him. For both Germany and the Allies, time was of the essence. The first side able to fill that unforgiving minute and capitalize upon the surrender of Italy with decisive action would dictate how war would be waged in the country.

New Prime Minister Marshal Pietro Badoglio promised Italy would honor its Axis commitment. No one believed him. For both Germany and the Allies, time was of the essence. The first side able to fill that unforgiving minute and capitalize upon the surrender of Italy with decisive action would dictate how war would be waged in the country.

When Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower heard the news about Mussolini, he wanted to broadcast an announcement praising the Italian people for deposing Mussolini, offer them peace with honor, and quick repatriation of Italian prisoners of war. Unfortunately, his British and American political advisers, Harold Macmillan and Robert Murphy, pointed out his idea was a political decision, not a military one; he needed Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt’s permission before he could act.

Surrender of Italy

Italian soldiers are marched through the streets of Bolzano, Italy after being disarmed by the Germans. In contrast to the Allies, the Germans moved quickly to take control of Italy. Bundesarchiv photo

Though the surrender of Italy was anticipated, the timing of Mussolini’s ouster caught the Allies ill prepared. Forty different peace proposals with Italy were being considered when the news hit. The Americans and British were also preparing for the Quadrant Conference in Quebec, to begin August 17. Eisenhower asked Macmillan to draft two telegrams for Washington and London, the first a statement to the Italian people, and the second a set of strictly military surrender terms designed to expedite surrender. Within two days, Eisenhower received and telegraphed his messages. Macmillan separately conducted backchannel communications with London, stressing an urgency of action.

Meanwhile, at the Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair) Führer Bunker in East Prussia, Hitler was ready to immediately invade Italy, free Mussolini, arrest the conspirators, and even invade the Vatican and seize the Pope. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel convinced Hitler to instead quietly build up German forces in the country. On July 29, Hitler authorized Rommel’s plan, code-named Operation Achse (“Axis”). Five days after Mussolini’s ouster, one panzer division was in place north of Rome. Within two weeks another eight divisions had joined it. In addition, Rommel’s Army Group B was in northern Italy and the German Tenth Army was in southern Italy. Within days eight Italian divisions were disarmed and gasoline for the Italian army confiscated. The German invasion of Italy was an unannounced fact.

“Our terms to Italy are still the same as our terms to Germany and Japan – ‘Unconditional Surrender.’”

– President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Meanwhile, the Allies were experiencing the chaos of order and counter-order, resulting in disorder. Macmillan recorded in his diary that messages were coming to Eisenhower from seven sources: the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington; Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall; Roosevelt; Secretary of State Cordell Hull; Churchill (direct); Churchill (through Macmillan); and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden (through Macmillan). Macmillan noted, “All these instructions are naturally contradictory and conflicting. So Bedell [Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith] and I have a sort of parlour game in sorting them out and then sending back replies saying what we think ought to happen.” By the end of July, Eisenhower had in hand two documents in preparation for the surrender of Italy: a short military armistice known as the “Short Terms,” and a longer instrument of surrender known as the “Long Terms.”

The first Italian peace feelers arrived on Aug. 15. Secret negotiations held in the British embassy in Lisbon, which at times had elements of opera bouffe, dragged on for two weeks. Finally, on Sept. 3, the same day the British Eighth Army launched Operation Baytown invading the toe of Italy, Badoglio’s representative signed the Short Terms.

Italian Surrender

Lt. Gen. Aldo Castillani, representative of the Italian government, affixes his signature to the armistice ending hostilities between the Allies and Italian forces at advance Allied Headquarters in Sicily, ca. 1943. Standing are: Mr. Montenari (left), representing the Italian Foreign Ministry, and Major Gen. Walter B. Smith, chief of staff to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander in chief of Allied forces in the North African theater.

One condition Badoglio had insisted on was an airborne drop of troops (Operation Giant Two) on the three airfields near Rome. While plans were assembled, Brig. Gen. Maxwell B. Taylor of the 82nd Airborne was sent on a secret reconnaissance mission to determine its feasibility. Instead of promised Italian army assistance in securing the airfields, Taylor found Rome and its environs crawling with German troops, making Giant Two a suicide mission. He immediately transmitted the code words “Situation Innocuous,” aborting it.

Badoglio meanwhile had second thoughts and sent a message to Eisenhower on Sept. 7 trying to back out because the strategic situation had changed. A furious Eisenhower fired back that he intended to “broadcast the existence of the armistice” on Sept. 8, forcing Badoglio’s hand.

Badoglio meanwhile had second thoughts and sent a message to Eisenhower on Sept. 7 trying to back out because the strategic situation had changed. A furious Eisenhower fired back that he intended to “broadcast the existence of the armistice” on Sept. 8, forcing Badoglio’s hand.

Operation Achse

A German tank from the 1st SS Panzer Division moves past the Duomo Cathedral, Mlian, during Operation Achse. The rapid German takeover of Italy after the Italian armistice was announced, ensured that Italy would become a battlefield. Bundesarchiv photo

The next day British troops landed at Taranto in Operation Baytown and the American Fifth Army landed at Salerno in Operation Avalanche. Whatever the Allies won in knocking the Italian government out of the war was lost through diplomatic delays that allowed the Germans to make the entire Italian peninsula a battlefield. The war in Italy wouldn’t end until May 1945.

By

DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...