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Italian resistance

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Italian resistance

The Italian resistance movement (Italian: Resistenza italiana or Resistenza) is an umbrella term for a number of partisan forces formed by pro-Allied Italians to fight the German Nazis and the Fascist Italian puppet regime during the later years of World War II, following the Allied invasion, the armistice between Italy and Allied armed forces, and the German occupation of northern Italy. It is also known as the Italian resistance and the Italian partisans. The modern Italian Republic was declared to be founded on the achievements of partisan leaders, whose political allegiance was mixed and sometimes contentious.

Resistance by Italian armed forces

The earliest acts of armed resistance to the German occupation following the armistice between Italy and Allied armed forces were undertaken by the Italian regular forces: the Italian Armed Forces and the Carabinieri military police. The best-known battle of that period broke out in the capital, Rome, the day the armistice was announced. Regio Esercito units such as the Sassari Division, the Granatieri di Sardegna, the Piave Division, the Ariete II Division, the Centauro Division, the Piacenza Division and the "Lupi di Toscana" Division (in addition to Carabinieri, infantry and coastal artillery regiments) were deployed around the city and along the roads leading to it. Fallschirmjäger and Panzergrenadiere were initially repelled but (despite being outnumbered and enduring heavy losses) slowly gained the upper hand, aided by their experience and superior Panzer component. The defenders were hampered by the escape of King Victor Emmanuel III, Marshal Pietro Badoglio and their staff to Brindisi, which left the generals in charge of the city without a coordinated defence plan. This caused Allied support to be canceled at the last minute, since the Fallschirmjäger took the drop zones where the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division was scheduled to be airdropped; Brigadier General Maxwell D. Taylor had crossed the lines and gone to Rome to personally supervise the operation. The Centauro II Division, not participating in the battle, also contributed to the defeat since its the German-made tanks could have turned the tables; however, given its dubious allegiance (composed primarily of ex-Blackshirts) it was not fielded. By 10 September, the Germans had penetrated downtown Rome and the Granatieri (aided by civilians) made their last stand at Porta San Paolo. At 4 pm, General Giorgio Carlo Calvi di Bergolo signed the order of surrender; the Italian divisions were disbanded, and their members taken prisoner. Although some officers participating in the battle later joined the resistance, the clash was not motivated by anti-German sentiment but by the necessity to defend the Italian capital and resist the Italian soldiers' disarmament. General Raffaele Cadorna, Jr. (commander of Ariete II) and Giuseppe Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo (later executed by the Germans) joined the underground; General Gioacchino Solinas (commander of the Granatieri) instead opted for the pro-German Italian Social Republic.[1]

In the days following 8 September 1943 most servicemen, left without orders from higher echelons, were disarmed and shipped to POW camps in the Third Reich (often by smaller German outfits). However, some garrisons stationed in occupied Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia and Italy engaged in armed combat against the Germans. Admirals Inigo Campioni and Luigi Mascherpa led an attempt to defend Rhodes, Kos, Leros and other Dodecanese islands from their former allies. With reinforcements from SAS, SBS and British Army troops under the command of Generals Francis Gerrard Russell Brittorous and Robert Tilney, the defenders held on for a month. However, the Wehrmacht took hold of the islands through air and sea landings by infantry and Fallschirmjäger supported by Luftwaffe aircraft. Both Campioni and Mascherpa were captured and executed at Verona for high treason. On 13 September 1943, the Acqui Division stationed in Cefalonia was ordered by Comando Supremo to attack the Germans, despite ongoing negotiations between Italian headquarters and Wehrmacht senior officers. After a ten-day battle, the Germans executed thousands of officers and enlisted men in retaliation. Those killed in the massacre of the Acqui Division included division commander, General Antonio Gandin.

Other Italian forces remained trapped in Yugoslavia when the armistice was announced and some decided to fight alongside the local resistance. Elements of the Taurinense Division, the Venezia Division, the Aosta Division and the Emilia Division were assembled in the Italian Garibaldi Partisan Division, part of the Yugoslav People's Liberation Army. When the unit finally returned to Italy at the end of the war, half its members had been killed or were listed as missing in action.

The Italian soldiers captured by the Germans numbered around 700,000. Most chose to refuse cooperation with the Third Reich despite hardship, chiefly to maintain their oath of fidelity to the king. Their former allies designated them Italienische Militär-Internierte ("Italian military internees") to deny them prisoner of war status and the rights granted by the Geneva Convention. After decades of obscurity, theirs has been recognized as an act of unarmed resistance on a par with the armed confrontation of other Italian servicemen.[2]

Partisan resistance

Partisan movement

The movement was initially composed of various independently operating groups led by members of political parties previously outlawed by the Fascist regime or by former officers of the Royal Italian Army. Later the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (Committee of National Liberation, or CNL), created by the Italian Communist Party, the Italian Socialist Party, the Partito d'Azione (a republican liberal socialist party), Democrazia Cristiana and other minor parties, took control of the movement in accordance with King Victor Emmanuel III's ministers and the Allies. The Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale Alta Italia (CLNAI, or National Liberation Committee for Northern Italy) was set up by partisans behind German lines and had the support of most groups in the region.[3]

The formations were eventually divided into three main groups: the communist Garibaldi Brigades, the Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Freedom) Brigades related to the Partito d'Azione, and the socialist Matteotti Brigades. Smaller groups included Catholics and monarchists, such as the Brigate Fiamme Verdi (Green Flame Brigades), 1 Gruppo Divisioni Alpine founded by Enrico Martini, and Organizzazione Franchi founded by Edgardo Sogno, as well as anarchist and apolitical groups. Relations among the groups were not always good. For example, in 1945, the Garibaldi partisans under Yugoslav Partisan command attacked and killed partisans of the Catholic and azionista Osoppo groups in the province of Udine. Tensions between the Catholics and the Communists in the movement led to the foundation of the Fiamme Verdi as a separate formation.[4] The Fiamme Verdi did not belong to the approximately 4% of Italian Resistance groups that were formal Catholic organisations, but instead was classed in the 21% of resistance groups that were "independent", in which the Fiamme Verdi was not formally a Catholic group, but had a very strong Catholic presence. Nevertheless, just as there were militant Catholics within the Garibaldi Brigades, so there were non-Catholics within the Fiamme Verdi.[5]

Rodolfo Graziani estimated the partisan CLN strength at around 70,000-80,000 by May 1944.[6] Some 41% of them were Communists of the Garibaldi Brigades and 29% were Actionists of the Giustizia e Libertà Brigades.[7] One of the strongest units, the 8th Garibaldi Brigade had 8,050 men (450 without arms) and operated in the Romagna area.[6] The CLN mostly operated in the Alpine area, Apennine area and Po Valley of the RSI as well as in OZAK and in OZAV.[6] Its losses amounted to 16,000 killed, wounded or captured between September 1943 and May 1944.[6]


Partisan unit sizes varied, with bands reaching 450 men and women. The size of units also depended on logistics (such as the ability to arm, clothe, and feed members) and the amount of local support. The basic unit was the squadra (squad), with three or more squads (usually five) comprising a distaccamento (detachment). Three or more detachments made a brigata (brigade), of which two or more made a divisione (division). In some places, several divisions formed a gruppo divisione (divisional group). These divisional groups were responsible for a zona d'operatione (operational group).

While the largest contingents operated in mountainous districts of the Alps and the Apennine Mountains, there were also large formations in the Po River flatland. In the large towns of northern Italy, such as Piacenza and the surrounding valleys near the Gothic line, in the Montechino castle there was a key partisan headquarters. The Gruppi di Azione Patriottica (Patriotic Action Groups, or GAP) carried out acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare, and the Squadre di Azione Patriottica (Patriotic Action Squads, or SAP) arranged strike actions and propaganda campaigns. Not unlike the French Resistance, women were often important members and couriers of the resistance movement.[8]

Like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, Italian partisans seized whatever guns they could find. The first weapons were brought by ex-soldiers willing to carry on the fight against the Germans and Italian Fascists from the Regio Esercito inventory: Carcano rifles, Beretta M 1934 and M1935 pistols, Bodeo M1889 revolvers, SRCM and OTO hand grenades, Fiat-Revelli Modello 1935, Breda 30 and Breda M37 machine guns. Later, captured K98ks, MG34s, MG42s, the iconic potato-masher grenades, Lugers and Walther P38s were added to partisan kits. Submachine guns (such as the MP 40) were initially scarce, and usually reserved FOR squad leaders. Automatic weapons became more common as they were captured in combat and as RSI soldiers began defecting to the underground, bringing their own guns. Beretta MABs began appearing in larger numbers in October 1943, when they were spirited away en masse from the Beretta factory (which was producing them for the Wehrmacht). Additional weapons (chiefly of British origin) were airdropped by the Allies: PIATs, Lee-Enfield rifles, Bren light machine guns and Sten guns.[9] U.S.-made weapons were provided on a smaller scale from the Office of Strategic Services: Thompson submachine guns (both M1928 and M1), M3 submachine guns, United Defense M42s and folding-stock M1 carbines. Other supplies included explosives, clothing, boots, food rations and money (used to buy weapons or to compensate civilians for confiscations).

1944 uprising

During the summer and early fall of 1944, with Allied forces nearby, the partisan resistance in Italy staged an uprising behind German lines led by the CLNAI. This rebellion led to the establishment of a number of provisional partisan governments throughout the mountainous regions of northern Italy. Ossola was the most important of these, receiving recognition from neutral Switzerland and Allied consulates in Switzerland. According to Field Marshal, Albert Kesselring, commander of the German occupation forces in Italy, German casualties against Italian partisans in the summer of 1944 alone amounted to 5,000 killed and between 7,000-8,000 "kidnapped", and the same number wounded.[10] By the end of 1944, German reinforcements and Benito Mussolini's remaining forces crushed the uprising and the area's liberation waited for the final offensives of 1945.

Nazi and Fascist retaliation

The resistance demonstrated that not all Italians agreed with Fascist rule, and proved that they were prepared to fight it despite the cost. The death toll amounted to tens of thousands of Italian partisans, civilians and prisoners of war killed. During the war, Nazi German and Italian Fascist forces (such as the Decima Flottiglia MAS, the Black Brigades and the National Republican Guard) committed numerous war crimes, including summary executions and reprisals against civilians; prisoners were often tortured and raped. The most notorious atrocities included the Ardeatine massacre, the Marzabotto massacre and the Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre.

Foreign contribution

Not all members of the Italian resistance were Italians; many foreigners had escaped POW camps or joined guerrilla bands as so-called "military missions". Among them were Yugoslavs, Russians, Ukrainians, Dutch, Spaniards, Greeks, Poles, Germans disillusioned with National Socialism,[11] and Britons and Americans (ex-prisoners or advisors deployed by the SAS, SOE and OSS). Some later became well-known to the public, such as climber and explorer Bill Tilman, reporter and historian Peter Tompkins, former RAF pilot Manfred Czernin and architect Oliver Churchill.


On April 19, 1945, with the renewal of the Allied offensive, the CLN called for an insurrection (the April 25 uprising). Bologna was liberated on April 21 by the Italian Co-Belligerent Army and the Polish II Corps under Allied command; Parma and Reggio Emilia were freed on April 24. Turin and Milan were liberated on April 25 through an insurrection; over 14,000 German and Fascist troops were captured in Genoa on April 26–27, when General Reinhart Meinhold surrendered to the CLN.[12] Many of the defeated German troops decided to escape from Italy and some partisans units worked out a deal with that the German columns could pass unharmed if they turned over any Italians traveling with them. The forces of German occupation in Italy in officially capitulated to the Allies on May 2. Some die-hard Fascists attempted to continue their fight, but got quickly suppressed by the partisans and the Allied forces. Since 1949, April 25 is officially celebrated in Italy as Liberation Day.

The liberation was followed by a score-settling campaign against pro-German collaborators, thousands of whom were rounded up by the partisans. Many of those detainees were speedily court martialed, condemned to death and shot. Italian Minister of Interior Mario Scelba later put the number of the victims of such executions at 732. The most famous incident of this kind involved the arrest and subsequent death of Benito Mussolini (Il Duce). On the morning of 27 April 1945 Umberto Lazzaro (nom de guerre "Partisan Bill"), a partisan with the 52nd Garibaldi Brigade, was checking a column of lorries carrying retreating SS troops at Dongo, Lombardy, near the Swiss border. This was part of an agreement with the partisans that the convoy would be given safe passage if no Italians were concealed among the Germans. In one of the trucks, however, Lazzaro recognized Mussolini. The task of executing Mussolini was given to a "Colonel Valerio" (generally identified as Walter Audisio or Luigi Longo). The bodies of Mussolini and Petacci were later brought to Milan and hung upside down in Piazzale Loreto, a square near the Milano Centrale railway station. Fifteen prominent Fascists (including Mussolini, Clara Petacci, Fernando Mezzasoma, Luigi Gatti, Alessandro Pavolini and Achille Starace) were executed and displayed in the square; this number was significant because the bodies of 15 executed anti-Fascists were displayed in this square the previous year.

Other activities

Another task carried out by the Italian resistance was assisting escaping POWs (an estimated 80,000 were interned in Italy until 8 September 1943),[13] who were helped to reach Allied lines or escorted to Switzerland on paths previously used by smugglers. Sometimes fugitives were hidden in safe houses, usually by women (less likely to arouse suspicion) and sometimes several at a time. After the war, Field Marshal Harold Alexander issued a certificate to those who did this at the risk of their lives.

Jews were aided by DELASEM, a secret network extending throughout occupied Italy and including Jews and Gentiles, Roman Catholic bishops, clerics, laity, policemen and even some German soldiers. Since Jews were considered "enemy aliens" by the new Fascist government, they were left with little or nothing to live on. DELASEM contributed to their survival by offering food, shelter and donated money. Some of its members would later be designated Righteous among the Nations.

See also


External links

  • (Italian) ANPI – Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d'Italia
    • provides a source for the list of partisan governments
    • ANPI Section of Rimini
      • Interviews with Italian partisans
    • ANPI Section of Pesaro-Urbino
      • The photographies of the resistance
  • (Italian) ANCFARGL – Associazione Nazionale Combattenti Forze Armate Regolari Guerra di Liberazione
  • (Italian) INSMLI – Istituto Nazionale per la Storia del Movimento di Liberazione in Italia
  • (Italian) Il portale della guerra di Liberazione
  • Articles on Anarchist resistance to Italian Fascism
  • 1943–1945: Anarchist partisans in the Italian Resistance
  • European Resistance Archive
  • Book: War In Italy: By Richard Lamb
  • E-Book: Il Partigiano D’Artagnan: By Alberto Cotti
  • The Life of Basil Davidson by James Currey

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