Archive for the ‘Mediterranean’ Category

On June 24, 1940, France signed an Armistice which signified the end of the fighting.  But it wasn’t with Germany as you might have expected.  That deed was done back on June 22nd, and Adolf Hitler had gone to great lengths to make the ceremony as “meaningful” as possible.  He chose the Compiègne Forest because it was where the Armistice ending World War I (which had begun Germany’s humiliation) had been signed.  He chose the very same railroad carriage and, in fact, Der Fuhrer sat in the exact same chair where the defeated Ferdinand Foch had been seated less than 22 years earlier.  This time, of course, the outcome had been very different.

With these signings, Hitler (and all of Germany) believed they had finally thrown off the last vestiges of their First World War defeat and the subsequent Versailles Treaty.  What’s more, reciprocity with France had now been achieved.

But again, that was the 22nd.  The Armistice signed on this day was with Italy and, to some degree, it was even more embarrassing.  Italy’s participation in the war with France had been absolutely minimal, because it hadn’t declared war on France until June 10th, by which time the German army had squashed all major French resistance, had sent the British scrambling back to England, and was basically riding down the roads towards Paris.  Italy sent 30+ divisions into southern France as their “show of force”, but most of them were poorly trained and even more poorly equipped, to the point where there weren’t enough utensils to feed the troops.  Even worse, the Italian Army progressed all of about 5 miles into France…5 miles.

Italy’s entrance into the War wasn’t all that dissimiliar to the time you got beat up in high school by the campus bully and, while you were lying there bleeding, some geek with a pocket protector and a grudge against you for getting him kicked out of A/V class walked up and took your wallet.

So the French delegation ventured to Rome and, suffering humiliations galore, signed an Armistice with Italy.

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For Today’s History Lesson, let’s talk about the island of Malta.  If you can find Italy on a map, you can find Malta.  Sicily is the big island off the toe of Italy, and Malta is tiny island that lies about 60 miles off the southeast corner of Sicily.  Actually, it’s not just one island, but one major island and a handful of very small islands.

With the German invasion of France in May of 1940, Italy decided to “come to Germany’s aid” and declared war on both France and Britain, but not until June 10th, when the outcome in France and the Low Countries was no longer in doubt.  As a first act, the Italian air force sent 10 bombers to attack Malta on June 11, 1940.  Success was minimal, but for them it was a start.

On the other side, the British had not dedicated a lot of resources to Malta because, frankly, they didn’t think they could adequately defend it.  So it become something of a backwater fortress.  But the British did not want the Maltese government to capitulate to the Germans because of Malta’s strategic location.  And that, coupled with initial success against Italian air attacks,  began to change British thought.  Soon supplies, reinforcements, aircraft, and anti-air weaponry began pouring into Malta.

And then British carriers arrived.  And the Italian attacks became more intense.  And the British called in more forces.  And then the Luftwaffe, flying from Sicily and North Africa, were brought into the picture, including the famed Jg26 Squadron, known as the Abbeville Boys.  And the German Navy imposed a blockade on Malta, and the island was nearly starved into submission…but not quite.

During the course of the war, Malta would become the most heavily bombed piece of real estate on the planet, but the British forces held through two and a half years of relentless poundings, siege, and starvation.  Eventually the Germans, thinking Malta had been put out of commission, turned their attentions elsewhere, which allowed the British to at least partially resupply the island again.  And then the war in the Mediterranean and North Africa began to turn against the Axis, and supplying Malta became easier.

But the most concentrated bombing campaign of the war began on this day in very simple manner.

Recommended Reading: Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege, 1940-43

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Since late 1940, Germany had been working diligently to gain as much of the Balkans as possible.  Having decided to invade the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler sought, by pen or sword, to protect the area’s backside…the Mediterranean Sea.  Using the pen and the Tripartite Pact, he gained Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia.  With the sword, Hitler rescued Mussolini’s troops and captured Greece.  All that remained was the island of Crete (not this Crete…this Crete).

Most of the Allied forces in the area (the British, Australians, and New Zealanders) had evacuated Greece at the end of April and sought refuge on Crete.  About this time, Allied codebreakers started reading messages involving possible action against the island, but as the last major Allied stronghold in the Mediterranean, it didn’t take a scientist to determine where the next blow would fall.  So General Bernard Freyberg started laying out his defenses, concentrating the roughly 40,000 troops on the northern end of the island and its three key airfields.

His opponent, General Kurt Student, planned his initial attacks (with about 23,000 soldiers) for several points along the northern coast, using paratroopers in an effort to surprise the defenders and capture the airfields.  At that point, reinforcements could be easily landed to finish the operation, code-named Mercury.

As the sun ascended on May 20, 1941, the German paratroopers descended…and everything started going wrong.  The New Zealanders and Australians were crack shots, killing many soldiers before they even landed, while those on the ground ran into withering gun and mortar fire.  Casualty rates in many units exceeded 50%, and several regiments were wiped out nearly to a man.  That first day had the look of certain defeat for the Germans.

But late in the evening, difficulties in communication actually led the Allied troops to make a key decision which, in all likelihood, cost them the battle.  The forces around Hill 107, near the Maleme airfields, sensed the Germans gaining strength.  Unable to communicate with the others due to broken equipment and with his troops severely reduced, they decided to concede the Hill (and a part of the Maleme airfield) and pull back to a more defensive position.

It was all the opening the Germans needed.  They captured the Hill the next day and, possessing the high ground, captured Maleme as well.  With the ability to land fresh forces, it was just a matter of time until Crete was in German hands.  But German paratroop losses were so heavy that Hitler would not again assualt a defended target using airborne troops.

Recommended Reading: Campaigns of World War II Day By Day – Ok, we’ve been hanging out for a few months and I think we’re friends, so I’ll let you in on one of my secrets.  This book has been essential to me.  I’ve got three or four different “timeline” books, but this is one of the best.

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Allied forces had been fighting a World War I-style static war in Italy for several months.  And much like the little boy that repeatedly tries to get through the gate you set up to keep him out of the basement, they had run up against Germany’s Gustav Line and been soundly repulsed.  But unlike the little boy’s failures, Allied failures came at the cost of thousands of casualties.

The Gustav Line itself was a series of fortifications that spanned Italy.  To easily find it, get a map of Italy and locate Rome.  Move south about 60 miles or so to the southern end of the Gulf of Gaeta.  Found it?…ok, now draw a line northwest to the town of Cassino.   Now locate the towns of Pescara and/or Ortona on the eastern coast of Italy.  Draw the line from Cassino to a point just south of Ortona (pictured above).  That essentially creates the line that had held up the Allies for months.

Operation Diadem was the assault designed to break the German stranglehold on the Gustav Line.  But an important secondary goal was to draw off German forces from France and southern Europe that would potentially be used to resist the Allied landings in Normandy.  General Harold Alexander, in overall command, wanted a 3-to-1 troop advantage, so as quietly as possible, he amassed a half million Allied troops…an incredible 28 divisions.  Late in the evening of May 11, 1944, the operation commenced with a spectacular artillery barrage.  In fact, the 5th Army alone expended nearly 175,000 artillery shells in the first 24 hours…better than 2 per second.

There was doubt as to the outcome as the initial advances stalled.  But thanks to a massive aerial bombardment in and around Field Marshal Kesselring’s headquarters, communications were disrupted to the point that German forces were directionless for those critical early hours.

Late in the evening of May 13th, Free French and Morrocan forces had broken open a 2-mile gap in the Gustav Line.  German reserves attempting to breach the gap were outflanked and, on May 14, 1944, the Italian colors were flying on the summit of Mt. Majo, more than two miles behind the Gustav Line.  By the end of the day’s fighting, the advance would have doubled that distance.  After months of struggle, the Gustav Line had been smashed.

Recommended Reading: Cassino to the Alps

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I’ve mentioned Rick Atkinson’s terrific Liberation Trilogy in the past.  Two of the three books have been published, “An Army at Dawn” (covering the North Africa campaign) and “The Day of Battle” (dealing with the invasions of Sicily and Italy).  As I was reading “The Day of Battle“, I came across the story of Max Brand and recognized him as a writer of westerns.  When I started composing pieces for Today’s History Lesson, I noted that I needed to research Max a little more and, at some point, say something about him.

Frederick Schiller Faust was born in Seattle on May 29, 1892.  After the deaths of his parents, he moved to California, where he attended college, though he never earned a degree.  But his love of writing (and his skill at it) quickly came to the fore, and he wrote hundreds of articles and short stories for magazines.  His first love was poetry, but it didn’t play nearly as well as his westerns, which can still be found in stores today under the best known of his many pseudonyms…Max Brand.  Faust/Brand moved to Italy with his wife and children in the 1920’s, and returned to the States in the late 30’s as the shadows of war deepened in Europe.  As a scriptwriter for several of the major studios, he was one of the highest paid writers of his day.

Much like Ernie Pyle, when the U.S. entered the war, Brand traded in his domestic work to do his part for the war effort as a correspondant.  And much like Pyle, Max Brand was extremely popular with the soldiers, who knew of his writings and appreciated his “go-to-the-front” attitude.  But sadly, Brand’s life, like Pyle’s, would end in the war.  On May 12, 1944, as the 351st Infantry attempted to take the village of Santa Maria Infante in west-central Italy as part of Operation Diadem, Max Brand was killed by shrapnel from one of the deadliest German weapons of the entire war, an 88mm anti-tank gun.

Recommended Reading: Fighter Squadron at Guadalcanal – Max Brand’s only work of non-fiction, published 50 years after his death, happens to be about World War II.  I don’t have any of his hundreds of westerns, but I have a copy of this.

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April 28, 1945 marks the death of Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini.  Il Duce had taken the reigns of Italy in 1922 and had served as its leader until his removal from office and subsequent arrest in July of 1943, when the Allied invasion of Italy began.

For two months he had been constantly moved around, as his captors sought to keep him from the Germans.  But just two months later, a German special ops team, led by Otto Skorzeny, rescued Mussolini and promptly took him to northern Italy, which was still under German control.  There Mussolini set up yet another Facist state that he headed until 1945 when the Allied forces closed in from the south.

And then began Benito’s flight to freedom.  Dressed as a German soldier, he retreated further north with the troops and was heading for Switzerland to escape to Spain when, on April 27, 1945, he and his mistress were captured by communist partisans.  They were moved to Mezzegra, a small town on the Italian-Swiss border, where they were both shot the next day.

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By noon of March 24, 1944, Kappler (with the help of Roman police chief Pietro Caruso) had his list completed, and it contained 320 names, 10 for each of the 32 soldiers killed.  When a 33rd soldier died, Kappler added another 10 names to the list.  A great many were simply political prisoners, along with a number of Jews who had been recently rounded up, and maybe a few innocent people who just happened to be in the vicinity or lived on the Via Rasella.  It is certain that not a single one of them had anything whatsoever to do with the attacks of the previous day.

The prisoners, with ages ranging from 15 to nearly 75, were trucked to the Ardeatine Caves, which is something of a misnomer because the “caves” were actually part of the elaborate catacomb system carved out by Christians in the 1st Century A.D.  The prisoners were taken from the trucks 5 at a time, moved into the caves, and executed.  Most of the executioners had little or no experience, so Erich Priebke and Karl Hass (the two SS Captains in charge of carrying out the executions) brought cognac to help “bolster” the firing squads.  It did little to boost their confidence, and more to make them drunk and sloppy.  Subsequent victims were required to climb the bodies of the dead to await their turns, and the inebriated soldiers sometimes required several shots to complete their grisly task.  It turned out that a counting error led to an additional five people being put on the trucks, and they were shot as well, probably because they were witnesses.  The final tally was 335 killed.

Rumor quickly spread of an “atrocity near the caves”, and the Germans tried unsuccessfully to hide the evidence.  The bodies were exhumed for identification purposes, and then re-interred at the site, which would become a memorial.  Responsibility fell heaviest on Kappler (who was sentenced to life in prison after the war) and Caruso (who was executed later in 1944).  Priebke and Hass escaped after the war, were not captured until years later, and served little or no time at all.

I found a good website while researching this, so I’ll point you to it. It has additional detail, and photos relating to the massacre. Some of it is a little gruesome, so…here you go

Recommended Reading: Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle For Rome

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March 23, 1944 – 3:40pm – A troop of SS policeman walked in formation up the Via del Traforo and turned left on to the Via Rasella.  Most of the men, too old to fight in actual combat, were charged with maintaining order in the city of Rome, but that was becoming an increasingly difficult task.

Life under Benito Mussolini was tolerable, but Il Duce’s soft stance on the “Jewish Question” didn’t play well in Berlin.  So, in September 1943, Rome’s SS Chief, Lt. Colonel Herbert Kappler, was ordered to arrest all the Jews in the city.  And things began going downhill rather quickly.  The Italians resisted and helped to hide their Jewish compatriots, and the Germans responded with shootings and deportations…to which the Italians responded with bomb attacks and shootings of their own.  It wasn’t long before it was said that one half of Rome was hiding the other half.  Violence begat more violence, terror begat more terror.

The SS police force slowed some as it climbed the street.  Up the way, a street sweeper was busy cleaning a gutter and smoking a cigar…but not just a street sweeper.  It was a partisan preparing an attack.  His cart was loaded with TNT and pipe bombs, all set to explode with a 25-second fuse.  With the troops closing to within 50 yards, the fuse was lit and the partisan left the scene, disappearing down an alley.

The bomb went off like clockwork, mowing down the column.  Other partisans, waiting for the blast, added to the carnage with guns and grenades, then vanished.  In a matter of moments, it was over.  Nearly one hundred men were dead or wounded with ten civilians also killed.  SS Chief Kappler was quickly on the scene and many arrests were immediately made with no regards as to whether those incarcerated had anything to do with the events.

Upon receiving word of the attack, Hitler’s response was predictable…blow up a quarter of Rome.  That not being feasible, General Alfred Jodl delivered the final message as the night of the 23rd was ending…ten Italians prisoners were to die for each German soldier killed.

And so Lt. Col. Kappler began compiling the lists.

To be continued…

Recommended Reading: Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle For Rome

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It has often been said that volcanoes wait for no man.  Well, it hasn’t been said all that often…ok, it probably hasn’t been said at all.  But, while I’m no expert, it’s pretty safe to say that volcanoes do run on their own timetables.

Anyways, if you’re like me (and I know I am), you’ve been fascinated with the beauty, majesty, and deadly power of volcanoes, and today marks an anniversary of sorts in volcano history.  At about 4:30pm on March 18, 1944, Mt. Vesuvius erupted.  That wasn’t all that rare an occurance, as the mountain had blown its top many times since its most famous eruption back in 79 A.D., which claimed the city of Pompeii.

But in 1944, there was a war going on in Italy.  Allied troops had landed and were pushing towards Rome in an effort to free the city and tie up large numbers of German soldiers and equipment which couldn’t be shifted to Europe when the invasion of France commenced.  The main eruptions lasted only a week (with the last gasp from the mountain on March 29th) and they were, on a relative scale, minor.  But to the war effort, Mt. Vesuvius was a mountain-sized headache.

Falling ash made breathing difficult.  Nearly every motor vehicle was halted by the fine dust, which clogged air filters and destroyed engines.  Rail lines were clogged and many had to be cleared by hand.  Ships in the harbor at Naples had to move out to sea for fear of the engines injesting the ash.  And then the rains came, and turned the ash to a scouring mud that destroyed brake drums on the vehicles.

In the end, twenty-six lives were lost, many of them killed when roofs collapsed from the weight of volcanic debris.  Much war material, including nearly one hundred B-25’s, was ruined, and a war effort, already moving more slowly than commanders had hoped, fell further behind schedule.

Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle – The War in Italy and Sicily, 1943-1944 – The second book in Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is a great account of the Italian campaign. I finished it a couple months back, and I heartily recommend it.

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