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The armistice

The 3rd September 1943 admiral De Courten, that was commander in chief of Italian Navy from July 25th, was summoned by Badoglio, the Government's chief and by general Ambrosio, chief of the High Command, along with the commanders in chief of the Army and the air Force, for being informed that there were in course negotiations of armistice with the Allies. Instead, just that day, the armistice (Short Military Armistice) was been signed in Cassibile, Sicily, by the Italian plenipotentiary general Castellano, for Italians, and by the American general Smith, for Allies. The decision to not render public the armistice, obviously also approved by the King, was dictated by two reasons: the first one was not to provoke reactions by part of the Germans, that were already in alarm, and in the second place there was a top-secret obligation convened with the Allies. Therefore the version of the "negotiations in course" was maintained till the noon of the 6th September, date in which was delivered to admiral De Courten a cover entitled "Memorandum n°1" that specified the countermeasures to take in case of probable hostile German actions, even if it was not explained why it had to be such hostilities. It was permitted only to advice admiral Sansonetti, under-officer chief of High Command and to communicate orally to the other admirals the most classified instructions that the memorandum contained; it was made by convening to Rome, for the day after, one restricted reunion of admirals. In the evening of the same 6th September admiral De Courten was then convened by Ambrosio, that delivered to him another memorandum, signed "Dick" (it was the last name of the chief of admiral Cunningham's general staff, but later on De Courten said that it had not understood it) in which were indicated the Allied ports where the Italian ships had to surrender in armistice case. Ambrosio said that the document was not too important, because it had been already asked to the Allies to concentrate the fleet in La Maddalena, that it was a Sardinian port, and that they would surely have granted it; in such occasion, De Courten was informed that the armistice would have been declared between the 10th and the 15th September, probably the 12th, but surely not before the 10th.

It seems that the High Italian Command did not become account, in those days, of the determining fact that Italy had lost the war and so the armistice conditions could be placed only by one of the two adversaries: the winner.

Let us make a step behind: what had signed Castellano? In a few words he signed a surrender without conditions. Above all the Italian government had to comply with four obligations, at the moment of the armistice declaration:

  1. To stop the hostilities of its Armed Forces.
  2. To transfer its ships and airplanes in the places designated by the Allies.
  3. Do not give every type of aid to the Germans.
  4. To use all the available forces for respecting the armistice conditions.

These conditions were the maximum that the Allies could grant, in that moment, to Badoglio and the King: in fact them, above all the clause 4, did not relegate Italy in a passive status of occupied nation but they promoted a role of active collaboration, and it throw the bases of a future of co-operation in war. In fact the Allies had become aware of the changed Italian political situation, from the Mussolini's fall, and hoped that these conditions could make easier the development of the operations.

But let us return to the 7th September morning: De Courten went to the Supreme command headquarters in order to deliver a memorandum of alternative conditions to the memorandum "Dick", but he did not find Ambrosio because, inconceivably, it had gone to Turin to see his family. The afternoon of the 7th had place in Rome the reunion of the admirals, presided by De Courten and Sansonetti, always on alert for a possible "German surprise attack". Nobody of the two spoke about armistice negotiations or about memorandum "Dick". The dance of the misunderstandings continued.

The evening of the 7th September De Courten met the German commander Kesserling and here he repeated that the Italian fleet was ready to leave for a last suicide mission against the Allies, already promised by De Courten to Doenitz in August, 15th and re-promised by Ambrosio to Kesserling in August, 21st; the bluff was carried on.

The same evening two American officers arrived in Rome, officially "captive": general Taylor and colonel Gardiner. They went, equipped of radio in order to contact general Eisenhower's headquarters, to the headquarters of the armored army corps where, as by the agreements of Cassibile, they had to plan the Italian defending of Rome until the arrival of the American 82nd airborne division. General Carboni, the commander, was not in H.Q. also if informed of their arrival: for that evening "he had programmed a supper" and only the next day the talks would have been carried out. The two Americans insisted to see Carboni, and then they went to meet Badoglio, in the heart of the night. Badoglio remained upset when he discovered that the armistice will come official in the afternoon of the 8th September.

Badoglio was terrified: he was late, very late, to plan whichever operation; so the two American officers had to transmit the message "Situation Innocuous", that meant the impossibility, for the Italians, to hold Rome against the Germans.

From that moment on, Badoglio and the King lost their mind: their safety and their escape had to be put before everything.

In the morning of 8th September it was seen an allied convoy, which was escorted by warships and it was half way between Palermo and Naples: it was the operation "Avalanche" which was going to land near Salerno; unfortunately, the Italian High command had not informed the Navy headquarters. Italian fleet, as planned before, was going to sail on for a "suicide" mission against the convoy. In the late morning, at High command headquarters, Ambrosio met De Courten and ordered him to wait because, at the very moment, it was known that the Allies would promulgate the armistice in the same day afternoon. Indeed, at 18.20, the news came; De Courten was at Quirinale (government palace), with the King, Badoglio, Ambrosio and the armed forces chiefs. Only at that moment Badoglio said to the astonished commanders that the armistice was already signed the September, 3rd and his trying to postpone the declaration day were failed.

De Courten was here informed of the Navy clauses; in an handful of minutes he was called to take historical decisions.

At 19.45 Badoglio, at last, announced the armistice at the Country. He did not give concrete instructions on Italian armed forces behavior, above all about Germans: it was the beginning of the "everybody for oneself".

The Navy, even if reluctantly, had to obey at the armistice's conditions, because it was signed by the legitimate Italian government. The Navy could only argue if these clauses were against the Navy flag's honor, but these planned only a warships transfer in allied ports, with their flags, weapons and crews. A different solution, easier, of course, would be to sink the ships, but the warships were the only "card" that Italy could play with the Allies. So the Navy headquarters obeyed, but it was also decided to evaluate the next events, for, if the fleet's honor should been at risk, it would have ordered the fleet to sink itself. It was also given a secret order to the fleet: they had to sink themselves on receiving a signal that said "Mantenete massimo riserbo" (literally: maintain maximum reserve).

Admiral Bergamini, commander in chief of the fleet based in La Spezia, received the order to sail to Malta by admiral Sansonetti and, in doing so, to not attack the allied convoy. Bergamini was reluctant, but Sansonetti convinced him speaking about the superior Crown's interests. Later on, De Courten informed Bergamini that he had asked the Allies about the fleet going not to Malta but to La Maddalena where, as he had planned, the King and the government staff had to go. He said also to Bergamini that, during the sailing, he would give him other instructions.

At 3 a.m. o'clock of September, 9th, the fleet went out from La Spezia port; after the meeting with three cruisers coming from Genoa, the fleet was composed by the battleships Roma, Vittorio Veneto and Italia; by the cruisers Eugenio di Savoia, Duca d'Aosta, Duca degli Abruzzi, Garibaldi, Montecuccoli and Regolo; and by eight destroyers. Starting destination: La Maddalena, in Sardinia.

When the fleet was near its destination, Bergamini, aboard on BB Roma with his staff, knew that La Maddalena was captured by Germans; so he ordered to sail west, towards Asinara island. At about the 15.10, the fleet was intercepted by a German Dornier DO27 bomber formation that was experimenting a new type of high explosive bomb (FX-1400). The first bombing made no damage, but the second one, at 15.50, was deadly: German bombs lightly damaged BB Italia (that was named Littorio before Mussolini's fall) and hit two times BB Roma. With the ammunition supply aflame, the battleship Roma exploded at 15.55 breaking in two, sinking in Tyrrhenian sea with 1352 men; among them there was admiral Bergamini too. There were only 596 survivors of the original 1948 men's crew.

Battleship Roma

At the same moment, destroyers Vivaldi and Da Noli, which were about to met the fleet, were shot by German artillery near "Bocche di Bonifacio" (the channel which divides Sardinia from Corsica). DD Da Noli was sunk and, just after, DD Vivaldi bumped into a floating mine, sinking a short time later.

CA Regolo, three destroyers and a torpedo boat rescued the survivors of BB Roma and of the two destroyers. With a load of survivors and wounded these units, then met by other two torpedo boats and two steamboats, having not the possibility to reach Sardinia, which was in German hands, went to Port Mahon, in Baleari islands, under the government of neutral Spain. But, before arriving, torpedo boats Pegaso and Impetuoso, damaged by aircraft attacks and a collision, sunk themselves.

Meantime, Italian government decided to go to Brindisi and not to La Maddalena. De Courten followed the government staff and admiral Sansonetti stayed in Rome to plan the movements and the destinations of the rest of the Italian fleet in Mediterranean sea.

Also if there was the loss of BB Roma, the big part of the fleet was sailing by time when, during the night of 9th, Germans captured all the ports in Tyrrhenian sea, Sardinia and Corsica. The warships which did not leave the ports sink themselves but some smaller units and some auxiliary ships were captured. Regia Marina lost in this way cruisers Gorizia, Bolzano and the older Taranto, already in dismantling, other 8 destroyers, 22 torpedo boats, 10 submarines, 9 corvettes and 215 smaller and auxiliary units: the greater part of these ships sink themselves.

Cruiser Gorizia Thanks to dr. Giuseppe Lupini, who gave me the photo reproducing cruiser Gorizia in Messina's port (reproduced here with his permission). Click on the picture to enlarge it.

After the Roma sinking, admiral Oliva, who had taken the command after Bergamini, received an order to change route and to sail to Malta. At 8.30 a.m. of September, 10th, his formation met an English formation, who escorted his one to Malta.

Here, general Eisenhower and admiral Cunningham saw the passing of the Italian fleet aboard of DD Hambledon. Cunningham, who had always respected the Italian warships, admired in particular the cruisers and in the past he often spoke about his desire to met them in battle. Eisenhower said to feel a "shiver" at the glorious sight of Italian fleet sailing towards Malta .

The battleships based in Taranto, Doria and Duilio, with cruisers Cadorna, Pompeo and Scipione and a destroyer, commanded by admiral Da Zara, went also to Malta, where the 10th of September they met the survivor Italian units formerly based in La Spezia.

BB Cesare, which in that time was in Pola nearly in dismantling, succeeded, however, to take the sea by itself and, without escort, it went first to Taranto (already in Allied hands) and then to Malta .

The Naval Academy was embarked on the ship Saturnia, which succeeded to reach Taranto, without damage, from Venice.

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