Italy, March 1945. Seventy years ago

March 1945 marks the anniversary of the start of the Po Valley Offensive in Italy, which ended at the end of April with the surrender of 800.000 German soldiers and 300.000 Italian soldiers, all well equipped and armed. If these troops stationed in Italy would have followed to the letter the orders of Hitler, then the Italian campaign would have ended in a great bloodbath. They surrendered earlier than Germany (May, 8th) because of the secret talks carried out in Switzerland by Dr. Allan Dulles – the future head of the CIA – on one side, General Wolff of the Waffen SS and some Italians on the other. This had been code-named Operation Sunrise. Possibly Mussolini was in the know even if he pretended ignorance. And this, perhaps, may have been  the ultimate reason explaining his mysterious death. It is well known that the Americans wanted to capture Mussolini and have him tried in a Court of Law, while the British, with W. Churchill at their head, refused to comply  and wanted him shot on the spot.

Dr Deric Daniel Waters, could be called a living treasure of Hong Kong. He fought valiantly during the Second World War as a Desert Rat with the Eight Army in the famous combat in North African deserts and later fought alongside the American Fifth Army in Salerno and Anzio, Italy. He was mentioned in Despatches and wounded three times. After hostilities ceased he rejoined the family building business established by his great-grandfather in 1853. He then joined the Colonial Office of Britain and set sail to Hong Kong in 1954. He taught building technology and the related subjects in the Hong Kong Technical College that has since become The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He was then made the Principal of the Morrison Hill Technical Institute in 1969 and transferred to the Government Education Department Headquarters in 1972 for planning and administration. He went on leave pending retirement from the Government in 1980. During the 1980s up to the present, he has written several  papers for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch including the stories about CSM John Osborn VC, “Hong Kong Hongs with Long Histories and British Connections”, “Foreigners and Fung Shui”, “Chinese Funerals”,etc. He has also published his works through other mediums. Dr. Waters had declared in an interview: ” I was born in the city of pubs and churches.  There is a pub for every day of the year and there is a church for every week of the year, and that’s Norwich (England) in other words, a famous old city. During the war I joined the Eighth Army, I fought in the desert, I was wounded three times, superficially, not badly, but I still have shrapnel in my body. After Africa we went across to Italy, to Salerno. It was the first invasion during the war where the Allies met resistance.”

 

Dr. Waters
Dr. Waters

Once I exchanged letters with him on the South China Morning Post about the War in Italy, which caused so much destruction and pains on both sides. I had written that the invasion of Italy by the Allies had been a costly mistake, caused by British Prime Minister’s W. Churchill wanting to play the role of the great strategist. Churchill had  indeed many gifts but he did not possess the necessary coolness to be a great general. My statement understandably caused a reaction by Dr. Waters, he answered saying that the 1944 landing in Normandy could have not be carried out one year earlier, as General Marshal was proposing, and that Churchill had been a great leader. Here is my answer to Dr. Waters, which the SCMP did not publish:

I wish to thank Dr. Dan Waters for his kind answer to my letter (Failure not an option in 1944, June 20 2013) in which he points out that a D-Day landing in 1943 was not possible, as I did claim.  In fact it was planned in 1943 and the date set by General George C. Marshal and Eisenhower was April 1, then Churchill opposed it and the massed troops were diverted to Italy. Churchill’s decision to land in Italy, which he called “the soft belly of Axis”, achieved very little in terms of shortening the war with Germany, as the Allies discovered that the “soft-belly” was not so soft as they expected: this is due to the ridge of mountains, the Apennines, running through its length and the Alps on the North.  Furthermore between 1942 and 1944 military hardware productions in Germany increased by three folds in spite of the bombings and we should not forget that by 1943 there were not defences ready in Normandy: Rommel had not set up the Atlantic Wall defence system and the bulk of German divisions were still deep inside Russia. True that failure was not an option but no one can compare the tactical and strategic capabilities of General C. Marshal,  Dwight Eisenower and Albert Wedemeyer versus  those of a Winston Churchill, a fine speaker and a cunny politician, but a dilettante in war matters.

Let me quote a profile of W.C.  written by military historian F.F.C. Fuller in 1961 for his book “Conduct of War” but suppressed by his editor, fearing a sue for libel:

W. Churchill was a man of unlimited courage, he was possessed of brilliant but unstable intellect, and was erratically imaginative and profoundly emotional. A militarist to his fingertips, he loved war for his own sake, and yet, when soft emotion stirred him, tears would well up in eyes. As a stateman he was out of his depth, because so often he confused means and ends, and failed to realize that a statesman’s first task is to prevent war, and his second, should be this be impoissible, to bring war to a profitable and speedy end. As a strategist he was a calamity, and because of his pugnatious temperament and love of fighting, tactics fitted him better. But, unfortunately, the glamour of battle – most of which is apocryphal – so completely intoxicated him that killing of Germans became  his irresistible aim. Had he been  a corporal, this would have been his keeping, but it had nothing whatever to do with the duties of a Minister of Defence. The truth would appear to be that throughout his turbulent life he never quite grew up, and like a boy, loved big bangs and playing at soldiers

Moder historiography and the uncovering of new documents, which W.C had not been able to suppress, seem to point that in this suppressed passage there is a lot of truth. Even if, as usual, history is written by the victors.

 

An Italian soldier, with German weapons and uniform,  March 1945.
An Italian soldier, with German weapon and uniform, March 1945.

 

 

Italians did it 2 years earlier. October 1914, the Dardanelles.

The poet Gabriele D'Annunzio (left) embracing Admiral Millo in 1922.
The poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (left) embracing Admiral Millo in 1922.

4 October 1914. One hundred years ago the first operations in the Dardanelles begun with the participation of ships of the British Royal Navy supported by French, Russian and Australian units. It was a purely naval operation at the beginning but it failed to achieve its aims due to the strong fortifications and the presence of Krupp artilleries, sea mines and German advisers. The Ottoman Empire was an unaligned power in 1914 but the British had confiscated 2 battleships constructed for the Ottoman Empire which were in British shipyards. To draw Turkey to its side Germany pretended to send a gift of two ships, the SMS Goeben and the cruiser SMS Breslau, as replacements. But in fact the crews were all Germans. The Turks decided to close the Dardanelles to Allied shipping following an incident of 27 September 1914, when the British seized an Ottoman torpedo boat. This drastic decision was actually taken by the German military advisors stationed in the Dardanelles and without informing the Ottoman government. On 28 October, the Ottoman fleet, controlled by Germans began raiding Russian ports in the Black Sea. Odessa and Sevastopol were bombarded, a minelayer and gunboat were sunk. Russia was thus forced to declare war on the Ottoman Empire on the 2 November, and the British followed suit on 6 November. On 3 November 1914, Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered the first British naval attack on the Dardanelles following the opening of hostilities between Ottoman and Russian empires. This attack actually took place before a formal declaration of war had been made by Britain against the Ottoman Empire. Admiral Fisher was recalled from retirement at the end of October 1914 by Winston Churchill and forced to draw plans for a naval action in the Dardanelles, which was Churchill pet idea but the two men continually quarrelled throughout the campaign, and Fisher finally resigned on 15 May 1915 after repeated threats to do so and having abandoned his post – with calls of hang him for desertion -. Then the British carried on with their attack with the battle cruisers of Carden’s Mediterranean Squadron, HMS Indomitable and Indefatigable, as well as the obsolete French battleships Suffren and Vérité. It ended in a disaster because the battle of the 18 March 1915 resulted in a victory for the Ottoman Empire. For just 118 casualties, they sank three battleships and damaged another with mines and inflicted seven hundred casualties on the British-French fleet. That operation was originally conceived to be purely naval due to a lack of available troops but by early February, it was decided that more regular infantry was needed. Contingents of Royal Marines were to be supplemented by the last unallocated regular division, the British 29th Division. It was dispatched to Egypt, to join Australian and New Zealand troops which were already undergoing training. At the outset of the operation the expected role of the infantry was to be the occupation of Constantinople and the taking of the straits was to be accomplished by the Entente naval forces, but plans were changed. What was to become the Battle of Gallipoli, a 10-month battle of attrition, began at 07:30 on 19 February 1915. The subsequent involvement of Australian and N. Zealand troops, which were machine gunned on Gallipoli shores remains one of the blackest page in their history. Few people outside Italy remember or know that the idea of forcing the Dardanelles was though feasible by Winston Churchill because it had been somehow carried out by Italians only two years before, during the Turkish- Italian War of 1911-1912. That war ended with an Italian victory and the occupation of Libya and the islands of the Dodecanese.

The Dardanelles were forced by an Italian squadron of 5 warships (Spica, Centauro, Perseo, Astore, Climene) led by Commander Enrico Millo di Casalgiate, a native of Chiavari in Liguria (1865 – 1930) who was in command of the dreadnaught Vettor Pisani in 1911 and there he planned the violation of the Dardanelles which he actually carried out in the night between the 18 and the 19 July 1912. He himself participated, being on board of the first ship of the line up, the Spica. The idea was to use torpedoes against the Ottoman battleships anchored there but the Italian ships were spotted after breaking in and were unable to torpedo the Ottoman fleet because of intense artillery fire. Millo for his daring attempt – which proved to be a propaganda coup reported all over the world – was awarded a gold medal for bravery.