Wednesday, September 20, 2017

MM Movie Review: 1898, Los últimos de Filipinas

Given recent events, it is clear that the Kingdom of Spain, like most every other West European country, is suffering from a severe lack of confidence and self-esteem. If this film, titled in English as “1898, Our Last Men in the Philippines”, is any indication of the popular culture it is certainly no surprise. It is the story of the last die-hard holdouts of the Spanish empire who, barricaded in a small church in the village of Baler, held out against a far larger force of besieging Filipino rebels from July 1, 1898 to June 2, 1899. I cannot say how the film did with its intended audience but of the Spanish reviews I read, most were positive though, thankfully, almost as many were quite negative. What we have with “1898, Los últimos de Filipinas” is a gorgeous film that throws historical accuracy out the window in an effort to tow the politically correct line and make the Spanish soldiers look as horrible and nasty as all “evil, European imperialists” are supposed to look today. Yet, do not think that the Filipinos escape unscathed either.

The Spanish return
In many ways, perhaps because the siege of Baler has sometimes been referred to as ‘the Spanish Alamo’ (which is a bit ironic considering the actual Alamo is a Spanish mission) it reminded me of the most recent film version of Texas’ most famous siege in that, in an effort to be liberal and avoid taking your own side in a dispute, the filmmakers went out of their way to portray the defenders in a negative light, yet, in so doing, could not help but portray the besieging force in a negative light as well, in fact making them look worse than the supposedly more patriotic pieces of decades past. Despite portraying the Spanish as the villains of this story, I would think it completely justifiable if The Philippines were to ban this movie as an insult to their people. They still, for most of the movie going masses, come across better than the Spanish but that is only because the public has been taught to accept what is spoon-fed to them and it is clear that the Spanish are the “bad guys”, carrying on the ‘evil European imperialist’ stereotype. However, if you actually think about it for a minute, you will see how the Filipinos should actually find this film even more insulting than a proud, God-fearing Spaniard would.

Teresa, a local 'working girl'
The film begins with a crowd of Filipino rebels making a surprise, nighttime attack on a small Spanish detachment at Baler, massacring all but one of the soldiers. We then take up with the unit that is coming to retake Baler and hold it for the King of Spain. I have heard some talk about the uniforms of the Spanish soldiers being wrong for a start. I am no expert on the subject, but I did think they were slightly off. In the end, it was more noticeable to me how the Spanish soldiers all had disappearing hats. By the end of the film, the two remaining officers still have their caps, but the straw hats of every one of the soldiers have totally vanished. I am sure this was done for the sake of the ‘look’ of the film, but as someone very familiar with exceedingly hot climates, a hat is essential. Anyway, the Spanish soldiers arrive, raise the flag and make contact with the sole survivor of the previous garrison, a bloodthirsty and brutish sergeant named Jimeno (played by Javier Gutierrez) as well as the local Filipino whore named Teresa (played by the very fetching Alexandra Masangkay). She is the only Filipina with a speaking part in the film and she is a whore which, sadly, sets the stage for how the Filipinos will be portrayed in this movie.

The Brother, Captain Morenas & Lt. Cerezo
The Spanish soldiers are led by Captain Enrique de las Morenas (played by Eduard Fernandez) who, in what I have heard is actually a rare bit of accuracy, brought his little dog along with him. Other than that, I doubt there is any similarity at all to the actual historical figure as this character is portrayed as fairly competent but still a rather out-of-his-depth fop. The primary leadership role, however, is that of his second-in-command Lieutenant Martin Cerezo (played by Luis Tosar). He is portrayed as an upright man with something of a death wish. His wife died in Spain, he has nothing to live for and, over the course of the film, seemed to me to be cast in a very fanatical light as someone willing to needlessly sacrifice the lives of his men simply because he feels he has no home to go back to and would prefer to die for his country. The main character, however, is an artistic soldier named Carlos (played by Alvaro Cervantes) who has ‘main character’ magical powers, by which I mean he somehow always manages to just happen to be nearby when important things happen, is talked to by everyone, picked for every important mission and so on. Frankly, it becomes annoying very fast.

I should also add that that the only other officer besides the captain and the lieutenant is the doctor, which is not historically accurate at all and should have been obvious given that the Spanish army was rather notoriously top-heavy with an overabundance of officers compared to the number of enlisted men. In any event, the Spanish take possession of Baler and in quick order are attacked by a large force of Filipino rebels, forcing them back into the church which they had prepared to endure a long siege. Here, again, the historical inaccuracies return as they imply many more Spaniards being killed in battle than was reality. Only a handful of Spanish soldiers (literally 3-5) were killed by the Filipino rebels, the vast majority of casualties coming from disease over the many months in a confined, sweltering space with an insufficiently balanced food supply. The Captain soon falls ill and upon his death is succeeded by Lt. Cerezo who refuses to surrender. They endure the occasional attack as well as one foray outside the church to eliminate a rebel artillery piece but for the most part it is a standoff.

Defending the church
No one comes away from this film looking very good. The Spanish soldiers are shown to be suspicious, discontented and disdainful of their government. They highlight, for example, the stupidity of putting untested, inexperienced troops who have never even fired a weapon into such a position and that the government was incapable of even providing them with shoes that fit. The first is another outright fabrication. Most of the soldiers at Baler were experienced veterans of colonial service and the second is simply silly. Shoes and uniforms that do not fit is a common complaint of armies all over the world. As to the attitude of the soldiers, it is impossible to believe that discipline and a determined defense over such a long period under such grueling conditions could have been maintained if the soldiers were so lacking in patriotic devotion as they are portrayed here. Given their behavior, one constantly expects them to simply shoot the lieutenant, surrender and go home. In fact, the Spanish soldiers were remarkably disciplined and only two men deserted (one of these being portrayed in the film, fairly accurately from what I can recall). However, overall, the portrayal is one of sullen, bickering soldiers who care nothing for the cause they are defending and who have only contempt for their country.

The Roman Catholic Church fares no better. The only religious figure shown (there were actually several) is the missionary Brother Carmelo (played by Karra Elejalde). Here is a man who has devoted his life to the service of God in the most distant and alien lands from his own home. However, in this film he is portrayed as a drug addict who retreats to the cellar to smoke opium from his hidden stash and lament that the Christian Heaven is, I will clean it up a bit and say “crap”, and far inferior to the Muslim Heaven. His only real praise for the Christian religion is that it is preferable to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation since you only have to suffer through one life. He also, before succumbing to disease, allows Carlos to share in his hidden store of opium and so turns him into a drug addict as well which eventually leads to a great deal of agony for Carlos when the supply runs out. The whole sub-plot is insulting and ridiculous as well, as if someone thought that an historical epic about heroism and determination needed to take time out to rip off the plot from “Trainspotting”.

Literally every Filipina in this movie is portrayed as a whore
The Filipinos are also horribly insulted, though safe to say it is rather by accident. The filmmakers obviously intended to show the Filipinos as everything the Spaniards (i.e. “evil European imperialists”) are not. They are free, in touch with nature, simple and sexually liberated. Their commander lounges around with his shirt open and Teresa sings in the rain with one breast exposed. They mock the Spaniards for fighting a war they know is already over, laugh at their sacrifice for a government that has “sold them out” to the villainous United States and they take all of this way too far. In what has to be the most insulting scene of all for Filipinos, the rebels shout to the Spanish in the church that they have local women available for them to enjoy and demonstrate this by having a rebel soldier and a local woman start fornicating in broad daylight right in front of the church so the Spanish inside can watch. The point was, again, to show the Filipinos as liberated natives living in a ‘state of nature’. The effect was to make all the Filipino men and women look like pimps and whores. Again, I am not the absolute expert on the subject but I am pretty damn sure that the Filipinos never used the tactic of, “surrender and you can have sex with our women”. It is hard to imagine anything more degrading than that.

If you look close, they did actually get the flag right.
I should also add that the United States does take a few hits in this movie too, being viewed as the enemy for both sides (the Spanish-America War was fought and ended during the course of the siege). This, however, is something the filmmaker clearly threw in to be politically correct as sticking to the actual facts would have been detrimental to the narrative he was trying to sell. The Americans actually tried to rescue the Spanish soldiers besieged at Baler but did not have much luck. A scouting party they sent in was attacked an massacred by the Filipinos who were, keep in mind, supposed to be allied with the Americans at this time. If, as the film claims, the Filipinos did not hate the Spanish at all (as they constantly claim) but simply wanted them to surrender and go home because the war was over, surely allowing the U.S. military forces to make contact with them would have been an easy way to do it. But, no, though the film does show Carlos, in an effort to go to Manila and report back on the situation, seeing a bunch of dead American soldiers in the jungle. Contrary to popular belief, many Americans wanted nothing to do with The Philippines and the decision to keep the islands and suppress the pro-independence forces happened when Filipino rebels attacked American soldiers before the government had decided what to do. I think I can safely say that no American wishes The Philippines had remained an American Territory. If that had happened, they could be a state by now and the expense of that would be outrageous.

Marching out after finally giving up
Eventually, and in fairness it must be said that the reason shown was historically accurate, the Spanish lieutenant does decide to surrender his post. The Filipino rebels, showing great chivalry and a total lack of animosity, allows the soldiers to depart with their colors and their arms to return to Spain. The problem is, what should be a moment to stir the pride of any patriotic Spaniards, actually amounts to nothing of the sort given the way the film has portrayed everyone. If one accepts the narrative of this movie, one would probably feel nothing but pity at best and contempt at worst for the Spanish soldiers who, led by an unreasonable fanatic, fought, suffered and died for a government that had abandoned them and against people who had no ill-will toward them at all. And imperialism/colonialism, at least when done by western countries, is always bad anyway so defending it is nothing to be proud of. The actors all did their jobs well enough and the movie looks absolutely spectacular, shot on the island of Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa and Equatorial Guinea, the scenery is truly breathtaking. Other than that, the whole thing was downright insulting to the memory of everyone involved, certainly for the tremendously heroic Spanish who endured so much to defend that last patch of ground over which their flag flew, to the Filipinos as well, albeit inadvertently.

Wasted potential
In the end, the audience is also made to think that Lt. Cerezo will be in for big trouble when he gets home for his actions at Baler. Once again, even this final note is a totally false one. The Spanish defenders will all hailed as heroes when they returned to Spain and Lt. Cerezo was decorated with the Cross of St Ferdinand by King Alfonso XIII and died in 1945 having achieved the rank of general. Ultimately, the only positive thing I can say about the message of this film is that it did make me see the parallels between the defenders of Baler and modern-day monarchists. Anything and everything will be said to try to convince you to abandon support for your monarch. You will be told it is a bad cause you are supporting, then that it is a futile cause, that the republic is inevitable, finally you will also be told that your monarch is not worthy of your loyalty, that a “real” monarchist would not support such a monarch anyway, whatever it takes so long as the end result is you abandoning your loyalty and accepting the end of the monarchy. Don’t do it. Be the hold out that never surrenders. This film is disgraceful, I am told there was one made in the 1940’s that may be better but I have not seen it. Instead, stick to the actual history and you will find a story of courage and determination that will inspire you rather than a film like this that can only demoralize.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Clash of Monarchies: The Second War of Italian Independence

The Italian peninsula, after so many centuries of division and foreign rule since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, would ultimately fight three wars for independence but of these three, none would be so consequential as the second. The first had seen the hope of the existing Italian princely states, Papal, Bourbon and even Habsburg, come together under the leadership of the House of Savoy against the Austrians with the possibility of confederation or federal unity for Italy only to be defeated by the Austrian army of the unflappable Graf von Radestky. King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia, after his defeat, abdicated in favor of his son King Vittorio Emanuele II a monarch who was originally interested only in the unification of northern Italy and that mostly so as to prevent it from occurring under the leadership of the radical republicans. However, with cooperation from the other Italian states now out of the question, he knew he would have to look for an ally against the Austrian Empire. Such an ally was to be found in the person of Emperor Napoleon III of the French.

Vittorio Emanuele II, Napoleon III & Franz Joseph
One benefit the Savoy monarchy had was that the radical republicans had been, in 1848 and after, thoroughly discredited among Italian nationalists. They had failed and in Austria, the Papal States and Naples, reactionary forces had revived in a harsh way. This meant that the Savoy, careful to keep on the side of the nationalist spirit, was looked to for leadership while the republican crowd of Mazzini was discredited. Aside from the King, the most important player on the Savoyard side was his prime minister Count Camillo di Cavour. For Cavour, nationalism was a means to an end rather than an end in itself. His goals were for the financial independence of Turin from British banks, the furthering of industrialization and economic expansion. Ties with British banks were cut, new ties with French banks were established, railroad construction exploded and trade increased. The army was improved as well and in 1855 the Piedmontese participated in the Crimean War as a way of gaining British and French support against Austria. The result was a Savoyard army that was better organized, more easily mobilized, with a better staff system and with greater combat experience.

Obtaining an alliance with France, however, proved rather difficult. The French were willing but Napoleon III extracted a heavy price for his support which included the Savoy ceding their own heartland, the Duchy of Savoy as well as the County of Nice to France. The King also had to give his daughter, the petite Princess Clothilde, to the hulking Prince Jerome Bonaparte, the French Emperor’s cousin. In exchange, France would support the end of Austrian rule over Lombardy and Venice and the creation of an independent Kingdom of Italy on the northern half of the peninsula. This was, however, a defensive alliance and would only take effect if Austria attacked Piedmont. In Naples, the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies did not figure into the issue. While still possessing a powerful army, it was geared entirely toward suppressing the local population, which had proven very prone to rebellion, and not to defending against foreign invasion. An alliance was proposed between Turin and Naples but King Francesco II of the Two-Sicilies had rejected it out of hand. They would play no part in the ensuing conflict.

Austrian Imperial Army, 1859
The French, more so than the Piedmontese, also took care to ensure that there would be no unwelcome intervention on the part of the Russians. This was not a problem as the Russians were feeling in no way sympathetic to the Austrians. Perhaps even more than the powers that fought against them, the Russians blamed Austria for their defeat in the Crimean War and were particularly bitter given that they had aided the Habsburgs during their time of greatest peril in the Revolutions of 1848. They also did not tend to view Austrian rule over northern Italy as legitimate anyway, going all the way back to the French Revolutionary Wars, Russia’s Czar Paul had been very disappointed by the British and Austrians keeping territory they took from the French rather than restoring it to its previous rulers, be it Malta or Venice. The British could also be counted on to remain on the sidelines given that they had good relations with France (for a change) and had been quite offended by the harshness of Austrian rule in Lombardy-Venetia. Paris and Turin were convinced that they could handle Austria between them and all that was necessary was for Austria to fire the first shot.

The Austrian Empire had come very near to total collapse in the Revolutions of 1848 but, thanks to the leadership of their new, young Emperor Franz Joseph and the victories of Graf Radetzky, they had weathered the storm and the Austrian Imperial Army seemed all the more robust and formidable. Austria did become a constitutional monarchy but it was a constitution that the Emperor accepted on his own terms and he pursued a policy since labeled “neo-absolutism”. There were problems though due to rivalries in the military leadership and a financial crisis which greatly effected military readiness. The politicians in Vienna always seemed prepared to sacrifice spending on the army before anything else and this meant that Austria could not maintain so large an army, or armies, on the Italian peninsula and, in the event of major trouble there, would have to divert forces from elsewhere in the empire if they were to maintain an overwhelming superiority. The Austrian Empire had also simply become overstretched. Aside from their own frontiers to the south and east, garrisons to keep troublesome populations in line within the empire, the Austrians had also been called upon to safeguard the Papal States and the Spanish Bourbons in Naples as well as their own Italian possessions. It was simply too much, particularly with a less than robust economy. The desire of Emperor Franz Joseph to reassert Austrian leadership in Germany also meant that neither Berlin or Moscow were, at the time, looking too favorable toward Vienna.

Officers of the Savoyard army
The French and Piedmontese, on the other hand, were well prepared with a joint-plan for military cooperation in the event of war and the Piedmontese economy was booming. It was the perfect time for a war but it could only happen if Austria made the first aggressive move. Count Cavour, therefore, entered into a number of schemes to encourage trouble in the central duchies such as Tuscany and Modena, nominally independent but ruled by junior members of the House of Habsburg. The famous nationalist revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi was also recruited to lead volunteers in the cause of Italian independence under the Savoy banner. This caused nearly 20,000 Italians to rush to Turin to volunteer, fired by nationalist zeal, so many that Cavour had to suspend his plan before things went off prematurely. The point was for the trouble in the duchies to draw Austrian strength away from Lombardy-Venetia and the government in Turin knew perfectly well that the government in Vienna would blame them for any Italian nationalist unrest and thus the Austrians would be encouraged to attack Piedmont-Sardinia.

King Vittorio Emanuele II also ordered the mobilization of his army, at least gradually, which was sure to attract Austrian attention. The Austrians were certainly alarmed but also unsure how to respond. The Piedmontese had not actually made any aggressive move and a full mobilization of the Austrian Imperial Army was a costly exercise Vienna would wish to avoid if not strictly necessary. The Italians also had to be fully prepared before the war started given that, as per the agreement, they would be responsible for both paying for the French intervention on their behalf and keeping both armies supplied during the war, which would be no small task. The French also began moving their forces into position which alarmed the Austrians all the more. In April, 1859, however, everything almost came to ruin when the British government proposed an international congress to deal with the Italian situation. Thankfully, France and Italy were rescued by their Austrian adversary. Emperor Franz Joseph had sought out the retired elder statesman, Prince Klemens von Metternich, who immediately understood that the French and Italians were trying to provoke Austria into a war and he advised the Emperor that, whatever he did, do NOT send an ultimatum to Turin. The young Kaiser sheepishly had to admit that he had already sent one out.

Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria
The ultimatum ordered the King to demobilize his forces or face war and this message was immediately forwarded to Paris. The French and Italians had their threat and could take action in a war of self-defense against Austrian aggression. Lest anyone think that Emperor Francis Joseph was being purely hot-headed in this blunder, he had expected such a conflict to rally the German states in support of Austria. Unfortunately for him, they did not. The Prussians were not sympathetic, seeing the Austrians as rivals with a bizarre obsession with non-Germans and the other states often did not see Austria as a “team player”, partly also because they were necessarily focused on their rebellious non-German territories. They also saw no reason for Austria not to accept the proposal for a congress rather than giving the Italians exactly what they wanted, which was a war. Emperor Francis Joseph, however, feared that any such congress just might say what many Italian nationalists had been saying for ages; leave Italy to the Italians and everyone mind their own business. Austria simply had no real friends at this point and so would have to stand alone. Emperor Francis Joseph, for good or ill, was prepared to and after the Italians did not respond to his ultimatum, issued the declaration of war on April 29, 1859.

Feldzeugmeister Franz Graf Gyulai, commander of the Austrian Second Army in Lombardy, believed that his forces would have at least two weeks to crush the Italians before the French could intervene. He had on hand some 110,235 soldiers as well as another 59,000 deployed throughout Lombardy-Venetia to suppress any popular uprisings. The Italians could field only 77,348 men to meet them, however, they were very efficient and led by men who had learned from the mistakes of 1848. The Franco-Italian leadership had also carefully worked out the train schedules and necessary stockpiles of supplies to move the French into northern Italy as quickly as possible. The Austrians had previously assumed the French were not prepared to move because they had not been stockpiling supplies. However, this was because it had been left to the Italians to handle the logistics and, in the end, the French army was transported quickly with ample stores by the very efficient Piedmontese rail network.

General Alfonso La Marmora
Unfortunately for the Austrians, Gyulai was no Graf Radetzky and no one knew this better than Gyulai himself who was more of a desk general. He had asked to be reassigned but this was refused. With the outbreak of war, his plan was to crush the Italians with his superior numbers and by then be able to take up a good position from which to deal with the French. He would march directly on the Piedmontese capital at Turin. Of course, this is exactly what the Italians expected him to do and the Piedmontese army was deployed to block any such advance and hold up the Austrians until the French arrived at which point they would work together to drive the enemy from Italian soil. The Italian commander, General Alfonso La Marmora was under no apprehension that this would be easy but he was aided by the extensive spy network set up by Lt. Colonel Giuseppe Govone, his chief of military intelligence, who had a constant flow of information on the movements of the Austrian army. La Marmora deployed his five infantry and one cavalry divisions to be in a position to block the advance on Turin and to be able to link up with the five French Corps at their places of deployment which, when they arrived, would be set up to pin down the Austrians at the Dora Baltea line and then, with three of the French Corps coming from Genoa to Alessandria, to threaten the Austrian flank.

Austrian naval strength was negligible, being about as large as the Piedmontese navy, far outmatched by the French fleet which was the second-largest in the world. In any event, the commander of the Austrian navy, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, had prepared only for the defense of the Adriatic and had no plans for offensive operations (and keeping in mind most of the sailors in the Austrian navy were Italians). As such, by rail and by sea the French were able to move their forces into Italy rapidly and freely. The Austrian army, likewise, inexplicably remained in place for days while their enemies massed against them. Gyulai claimed that Vienna had ordered him to wait while in Vienna they blamed Gyulai for not seizing the initiative. It is difficult to know who was in the right but it does seem that, having blundered into giving the Italians the war they wanted, Emperor Franz Joseph hoped, at the last minute, to be able to negotiate a solution or for the German states to rally in support of Austria. Of course, neither would be the case nor were such hopes frankly realistic. By May 1, with French deployments proceeding as scheduled, General La Marmora remarked to the commander of the Third Division at Novi, General Giovanni Durando (commander of the Papal Army in the First War) that the Austrian advance was “molto lentamente” (very slow).

Feldzeugmeister Gyulai
The Austrians had their spies too and they reported to Gyulai on the movements of the French army which seems to have intimidated him as they tended to exaggerate French strength. He was unsure of how to deploy his own forces for fear of where they would be when the French reached their own destinations. As it turned out, it was ten days from the time of the ultimatum until Gyulai moved, very slowly, toward Vercelli. King Vittorio Emanuele II, who was in his element on such occasions, wanted to stick to the original plan but the French convinced him to redeploy Franco-Italian forces away from Turin. He did so and, as it happened, a determined Austrian advance would have found little more than one Piedmontese cavalry division blocking their way if they had driven on for the capital but the Austrians were convinced that the French were planning to flank them from the south and so began to pull back. The danger to Turin dissolved faster than it had appeared.

By May 12 the Emperor Napoleon III had arrived in Genoa. Armed with some thoughtful advice from retired General Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini (a veteran of his famous uncle’s army), Napoleon met with King Vittorio Emanuele II at Alessandria to work out their offensive against the Austrians. It would be too much to say the Franco-Italian forces took the initiative from the Austrians as the Austrians never seemed to have held it in the first place but Napoleon III and Vittorio Emanuele II were certainly willing to seize it where it lay. They did, however, pass up an opportunity to strike the Austrians while Gyulai was redeploying his forces but an overall strategy was still being well executed. The famous Giuseppe Garibaldi, given rank as a Lt. General in the Piedmontese army after pledging allegiance to “Vittorio Emanuele and Italy”, was to harass the Austrian right, brushing the Alps. He had originally intended to lead the effort to foment unrest in the central duchies but this job was instead given to Prince Jerome Bonaparte and his French troops, which was deemed preferable to the authorities in Turin as Garibaldi, a lifelong republican and former Mazzinian, was still not regarded as being sufficiently loyal to the Savoy monarchy to be absolutely trusted. Garibaldi in the north and Prince Jerome in the south would threaten the Austrian position from the left and right, they would be intimidating but not part of the major action.

French line infantry
As the French First Corps moved on Voghera, the Austrians thought this the first move in an effort to get around behind them and the Austrian IX Corps under Field Marshal Lieutenant Karl Urban was deployed to stop them. The result was the first engagement of the war that was more than a skirmish, the Battle of Montebello on May 20 between the lead French division of General Elie Frédéric Forey and elements of the Austrian V Corps under General Philipp Graf von Stadion which had been sent in to support Urban. Three Italian cavalry regiments, the Aosta, Novara and Montferrato, also participated. Despite being considerably outnumbered (3 to 1), Forey fought an aggressive action that made Graf Stadion believe that the French had more support behind them, prompting him to retreat and give the victory to the Franco-Italian forces under Forey. This sharp rebuke made Gyulai all the more reluctant to take risks but as he had initiated the action, it also made Napoleon III nervous that the Austrians might be trying to take back the initiative. As it was, Gyulai had been concerned about a move south and his forces had met the enemy so he continued to believe he was on the right track and all forces were shifted toward the south.

When an armed reconnaissance by General Enrico Cialdini, commander of the Piedmontese fourth division, found minimal Austrian resistance at Vercelli the following day, the French Emperor and Italian King could see that Gyulai was shifting away from the north, giving them an opportunity to come at the Austrians from that direction. Garibaldi was also proving effective at keeping the Austrians off-balance. On May 26 at the Battle of Varese, his Cacciatori delle Alpi routed the Austrians, forcing them to keep more troops deployed in the north as the aggression of the Italians again caused the Austrians to overestimate their strength. The next day Garibaldi and his men defeated another Austrian contingent at the Battle of San Fermo, forcing the Austrians to withdraw from Como.

King Vittorio Emanuele rallies the Zouaves at Palestro
At the same time, while the largely French force was engaged at Montebello, King Vittorio Emanuele II led Cialdini’s division with the addition of some French Zouaves against a smaller contingent of Austrians under General Friedrich Zobel at the Battle of Palestro. The Austrians rushed in reinforcements so that, in the aftermath, they held the numerical advantage yet the threat of French troops on the Sesia caused him to retreat for fear of being cut off. By May 30 the Franco-Italian forces had secured a bridgehead across the Sesia. With efforts to retake Palestro having failed and with Garibaldi keeping control of the northern front in spite of being outnumbered nearly 4 to 1, Gyulai decided that the threat to Milan was too great and he ordered a retreat across the Ticino to concentrate his forces at Mortara. However, the rapid movements of the Franco-Italian armies forced him to abandon that plan. He was correct that they were moving against Milan, the capital of Lombardy, but he did not know what approach they would take. He was coming under intense pressure and no small amount of criticism, particularly after the arrival of Field Marshal Heinrich von Hess with stern orders from the Emperor (who had reached Verona) to defend the frontier and not retreat to the Quadrilateral fortress complex.

The Battle of Magenta
More Austrian reinforcements arrived and Gyulai was finally convinced that the enemy was not trying to maneuver around behind him after all. There was also confusion as Hess outranked Gyulai, yet seemed to be leaving things to him. All of this caused a degree of stagnation on the Austrian side as one commander would fail to do something because he assumed the other commander would do it. Nonetheless, the Austrians did hold a strong defensive position around Magenta after destroying the bridges over the Ticino. Gyulai had about 68,000 men in the area when the Battle of Magenta commenced on June 4. With a little over 50,000 French troops plus 12,000 Italians under General Manfredo Fanti, Napoleon III planned an assault on the front and flank of the Austrian army. The two sides were thus evenly matched as long as the Austrians concentrated on the points of attack and did not remain spread out. Both sides made mistakes and many units blundered into each other, nonetheless, the Austrians took far heavier losses and finally retreated, giving the victory to the French. Napoleon III congratulated Marshal MacMahon with a peerage as Duke of Magenta for this success.

This latest defeat was the last straw for Emperor Franz Joseph who had seen his forces do nothing but retreat, be outmaneuvered and defeated often by forces inferior to their own. He dismissed Gyulai and took command of the Austrian Imperial Army himself. With the Quadrilateral fortress cities secure but the enemy in command of the surrounding countryside, his position was similar to that of Graf Radetzky in 1848. However, “Papa Radetzky” was a veteran, unflappable commander and Emperor Franz Joseph was not. Determined to take the offensive and crush the enemy, he abandoned his strong position and moved out on June 23 to take on the Franco-Italian armies. The result was the bloody Battle of Solferino the following day. Once again both sides were about evenly matched with roughly 130,000 soldiers each.

Emperor Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino
Each army was basically trying to attack the other and so units ran headlong into combat, often not as they intended. It was a huge brawl that involved a number of separate actions and coordination was difficult. The Austrian position was also undermined on distant fronts by uprisings breaking out in conjunction with Prince Jerome’s arrival in central Italy. Earlier, toward the end of May, his forces entered Florence and soon dispatched units to Parma and Modena. At Solferino, most of the fighting centered around two engagements, one around Solferino itself where the French under Forey pushed the Austrians back into the town itself at which point house-to-house fighting ensued. Despite Austrian reinforcements arriving, French attacks soon succeeded in nearly surrounding the town. Fighting south of town was disconnected from the main engagement and involved a number of cavalry units. There, the French attacks were repulsed by the Austrians but this had no effect on the imperiled Austrian position in town. The fighting was fierce and casualties were heavy, particularly for the Austrians.

Battle of San Martino
The other major action was the battles at San Martino and Madonna della Scoperta which largely involved the Italian forces. The Austrians had a fairly good defensive position and the Italians attacked immediately, hoping to dislodge them before they could strengthen their lines. However, this meant that the Italians attacked piecemeal as they came up rather than being able to throw their entire force at the Austrian position. Field Marshal Lieutenant Ludwig Benedek, considered the best Austrian corps commander by many, had been ordered to attack the French flank and had not been expecting to run into the Italians. However, he was a veteran of this region and kept his cool, responding rapidly to the changing situation. Repeatedly, Italian discipline and determination carried them forward to the cusp of success only to have Benedek adeptly move his men and guns to the imperiled area and throw the Italians back with devastating barrages. However, when word came that the main Austrian army had been beaten at Solferino, he had no choice but to conduct a fighting withdrawal as the Italian attacks continued. With the French having taken Solferino, the Italian seizure of San Martino marked the end of the massive and bloody battle.

French & Austrian Emperors meet at Villafranca
Stunned by the ferocity and chaos of the engagement, Emperor Franz Joseph ordered his forces to fall back to the security of the Quadrilateral fortresses. Losses had been heavy for both sides. The Italians had lost about 5,000 men, the French more than 10,000 and the Austrians about 22,000 in the vicious struggle. Both the French and Austrian emperors were shaken by the extreme loss of life. The carnage would later lead one Swiss observer of the engagement to found the International Red Cross in 1863. Operations continued for a time but Napoleon III and Franz Joseph both agreed that the war should come to an end. Franz Joseph feared that a continuation of the so far disastrous conflict could pose an existential threat to the Austrian Empire itself if other areas rose in rebellion. Napoleon also feared that if Austria seemed near to collapse the other German states might get involved and threaten France itself. Disregarding his earlier promises to the Italians, Napoleon III agreed to make peace with Emperor Franz Joseph at Villafranca on July 8.

The result of this was that Austria gave up Lombardy to the House of Savoy but retained control of Venetia. It was not the total victory that Italian nationalists had wanted and many were bitter about the result. The French had gained Savoy and Nice but had backed out before the total liberation of northern Italy had been achieved. Many, given how close Austria had come to collapse in 1848, thought they would not put up so strong a fight. However, despite being weakened by budget cuts, the Austrian military was much more effective than Austrian diplomacy had been. Things would have gone very differently if the Austrians had not managed to offend the Russians, Prussians, the minor German states and the French all at the same time. Not only did this isolate Austria but it also gave the Prussians room to further gain prestige among the German states, standing as the defenders of German rights while Austria was focused on keeping control of Italians, Slavs and Magyars.

King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia
A particular example of this was in 1857 when royalists in the Principality of Neuchâtel had risen in revolt. They favored the King of Prussia for their prince rather than being a part of Switzerland and the German states saw this as an opportunity to strengthen the German Confederation. Emperor Franz Joseph, president of the Confederation as the Head of the House of Habsburg, had, however, refused to give their cause imperial support. Prussia was ultimately forced to back down and many in the German Confederation wondered why they should take any risk to support the Austrian rule over unwilling Italians two years later when the Austrians had been unwilling to support pro-German royalists who wanted to be ruled by a German monarch. It was illustrative of how Austrian interests diverged from those of the rest of the German-speaking people. There were also those in Berlin who realized the implications that Italian independence would have better than the French did. Napoleon expected to gain a subservient northern Italian buffer state but, as Modena, Tuscany, Parma and after Garibaldi’s shockingly successful invasion of the south, all came to be part of the Kingdom of Italy, France instead helped create a rival in the Mediterranean.

The result of all of this was that Austria lost Lombardy, which joined with Piedmont-Sardinia, Tuscany, Parma and Modena to form the Kingdom of Italy, soon joined by the south and the Papal States outside of Rome. Austria remained friendless and increasingly overshadowed by Prussia and the French were not seen by the Italians as stalwart allies but as rather fair-weather friends who likewise kept troops in Rome. The French had gained battlefield laurels but would also find themselves without friends going forward just as the Austrians had because of their determination to maintain some level of control over Italy, continuing a cycle which had been going on for many, many centuries and which would continue until the fall of Napoleon himself in 1870. Italy had gained much from the Second War for Independence but not so much as to not require a third war. The Austrian loss did not seem too significant but it actually was. In trying to maintain control of Italy, Austria would ultimately lose their place in Italy and their place at the had of Germany to the Kingdom of Prussia. It would be no coincidence then that the Third War of Italian Independence would see Italy and Prussia on the same side.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Siamese in the Great War

Most people, outside of the country itself, probably have no idea that the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand) was a participant in the First World War. This is not too surprising given that the Siamese contribution was necessarily limited but the southeast Asian kingdom was a member of the Allied nations and, unlike some who declared war simply as a symbolic gesture, Siam actually participated militarily. World War One brings to mind the trenches and cratered landscape of Belgium and France but it was a global affair and Southeast Asia was actually fairly well represented in the conflict. Forces from French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos) participated on the Salonika and Western Fronts for example, the British had a potentially dangerous mutiny by Muslim forces on their hands in Singapore (dealt with by the Japanese) and so on. The Kingdom of Siam, like many others frankly, had no real reason to get involved given that Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria or Turkey had done them no harm but it was considered that participation would bring real benefits to Siam both domestically and on the world stage.

King Vajiravudh
The driving force behind the Siamese intervention was King Vajiravudh (Rama VI). This was when Siam was still an absolute monarchy but the King was not as all-powerful as he seemed from the outside. It was a time of great energy, hopes and aspirations for Siam and the King who was British-educated and who, after graduating from Sandhurst, was briefly an officer of the Durham Light Infantry in the British army. He thus had personal ties which made a totally dispassionate view of the First World War impossible. Which is not to say that he allowed personal attachments to cloud his judgment; far from it. He was very displeased with a recent treaty signed with the British which had seen Siam cede territory in the south to the British in what is now Malaysia. He valued his education and wished to see the same sort of education made available to his people but he was still annoyed at the unequal treaties Siam had made with numerous powers and the special privileges these allowed them, particularly France and, yes, Great Britain. He also faced internal threats to his authority and perhaps even the monarchy itself.

The collapse of the imperial system in China and the abdication of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 was a momentous event in world history that is generally not treated as such. However, it was positively earth-shattering and sent tremors all throughout east and southeast Asia, including Siam. A group of dissident army officers conspired to launch a military coup and abolish the monarchy, pledging to make Siam a constitutional democracy. Thankfully, word of the plan leaked to the authorities and they were arrested, tried and sentenced to death or life in prison. King Vajiravudh, however, wishing to appear strong and magnanimous, released all of them on the grounds that their intentions had been good in that they believed they were acting in the best interests of the country. Given what these men had said about the King personally, this had to be very difficult but for the King it underscored the need for greater national unity and to strengthen the monarchy. Many in Siam still had the mentality of the past when most of Siamese history was dominated by palace intrigue, family feuds and wars between rival city-states. King Vajiravudh wanted to usher in a new era of Siamese nationalism, place the kingdom on an equal footing with the other countries of the world and to bolster the power and prestige of the monarchy in the process.

French general inspects Siamese troops
The First World War was seized upon as an opportunity to do all of these things. The war itself was, of course, an absurdity that never should have happened and many still fail to grasp this, insisting that the problem was the wrong side won when the problem was that the war happened at all. However, the hopes of King Vajiravudh are at least understandable. By intervening in the war, he hoped to have a cause to rally his people around the monarchy and the First World War was the biggest cause going at the time. It would mean that the Kingdom of Siam was participating in the pivotal event in world affairs at the time and would give Siam leverage against its neighbors, the British and French colonial empires, to redress grievances in the future Siam had with both. Many in Siam were still annoyed, for example, that France had taken into its empire Laos and Cambodia which Siam regarded as vassal states of their kingdom. By intervening in a conflict which was an existential threat to Britain and France, particularly with no vital need to do so, Siam expected to gain greater moral authority in dealing with these two powers. Likewise, as the King issued the declaration of war in the summer of 1917, it could be expected that the war would not last for much longer anyway.

The King called upon all of his people to unite behind this cause, to take their place as a participant in world affairs and even adopted a new national flag using the red, white and blue colors of the major Allied nations. The three colors, as announced in Siam, were to represent a new national unity of 1 people, 1 faith and 1 king. As the Siamese Expeditionary Force was assembled, more people actually volunteered than could be accepted. As it was, Siam could, of course, only afford a relatively minor force of mostly support personnel with medical and transportation contingents as well as air forces though these would have to be trained by the French. The SEF, under the command of Major General Phraya Bhijai Janriddhi, landed at the port of Marseilles on July 30, 1918 about 1,300 strong. While the pilots and air crew were set off for their new training, the general observed the operations of the other Allies to gain some experience in how things worked and, not too surprisingly given the times, the first use of the Siamese was when a contingent was organized into a labor detachment.

SEF Battle flag was a hybrid of the old & new designs
By September, the Siamese forces started to be actively employed at the front with combat units being filtered into the line and the medical and transport personnel being engaged in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. None of the air personnel finished their training in time to participate before the November armistice but those units on the ground who did see action acquitted themselves quite well. Their involvement was not extensive but they had been involved and earned their place in the victory parade in Paris when the war was over and a detachment participated in the Allied occupation of the Rhineland. Losses had been extremely light with only 19 casualties. The Kingdom of Siam was present for the Versailles peace negotiations, not that it mattered much, and was one of the founding members of the League of Nations (again, not that the League ultimately mattered much). The Siamese contribution to the war had been limited and only for the closing months of the conflict, was inexpensive in terms of lives lost and had earned Siam a place among the victors when it was over.

However, the overall results of Siamese participation in the Great War were somewhat mixed. At the outset, it seemed to have achieved all that the King had hoped. They had been a part of the great event of the time, were on the winning side, the prestige of the monarchy had gone up and there were some benefits to found. Siam got to keep the German ships they confiscated at the outset and within seven years the British, French and Americans had all given up their extraterritorial rights in Siam. However, in the long-term, these benefits could be seen as inconsequential or of limited duration. The ensuing economic collapse hit Siam hard and internal divisions, which the King had hoped to eliminate for good, soon reappeared and, to some extent, have become a mainstay of Thai politics. The financial crisis caused Siam to go into debt to the British which, in a way, could be seen as offsetting the new equality gained by Britain giving up her extraterritorial rights. All of this stress also benefited the dissident crowd and soon those advocating for a constitutional monarchy were back. King Vajiravudh would not live to see it but his successor, his younger brother King Prajadhipok, would go down in history as the last absolute monarch of Siam, the result of the Revolution of 1932 and the only king of Chakri dynasty to date to abdicate the throne.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

How New York Got Its Name

Previously, more than once, I have bemoaned the lack of familiarity most Americans have with colonial history. Sadly, I do not see that as likely to change in the foreseeable future given how the population is increasingly becoming less connected to the people who established the colonies which eventually came together into the country that exists today. This is unfortunate as, without the participating European colonial empires there would be no United States (nor any other country as exists today in the Americas) but even among those who are at least vaguely aware of the state of affairs prior to the independence of the “Thirteen Original Colonies”, fewer still are aware of just how many European colonial empires were involved in the settlement of North America. The Spanish, French, English and Russians all played a part as did still less remembered powers such as the Kingdom of Sweden (at the time Sweden and Finland) which established a North American colony in the reign of Queen Christina and, likewise, so did the Seven United Provinces of The Netherlands.

Dutch West Indies Company
Although mostly centered on what is today New York, the Dutch colony covered parts of what is today New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut and even small areas of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The Dutch got their start with the employment of Henry Hudson, an Englishman, by the Dutch East India Company to try to find the elusive northwest passage to Asia. In his famous ship the Half Moon, he explored much of the coast of northeast America, giving his name to a river and a large bay in Canada. He did not make it to Asia but he returned to Holland with glowing reports of land ripe for colonization. More expeditions followed to survey and chart the area in greater detail and to trade with the native population all of which were funded by the New Netherland Company. In 1621 the Dutch West India Company was granted a charter to gain for The Netherlands a piece of the lucrative fur trade in North America. It is also noteworthy (though often forgotten) that their charter forbid them to take possession of any land that was not legally purchased from the native inhabitants.

Peter Minuit
Today, this presents a problem to the egalitarian crowd as even many who know practically nothing about this period will remember that the Director of New Netherland colony, Peter Minuit, purchased Manhattan Island from the natives for 25 Dutch guilders worth of trade goods. Many, keeping in mind that today Manhattan is home to some of the most highly valued property on the planet, portray this as Minuit cheating the Indians out of a fortune in real estate with a chest full of trinkets. This, however, runs counter to the argument for egalitarianism since, if this was such a huge swindle and if all people are equal, the Indians should have known they were being cheated. One cannot, on the one hand, demand that everyone be treated equally and then, at the same time, demand that special allowance be given to the ignorant. The truth, however, is that the Indians were not so ignorant and the Dutch did not swindle them. Yes, the land is worth a huge fortune today but, at the time, it was empty wilderness, no different than the other vast tracts of empty wilderness that covered the continent. Land was something that seemed endlessly plentiful whereas the manufactured goods offered by the Dutch were items which the Indians did not have and could not make for themselves, thus each gave up something they had in abundance for something the other could not obtain on their own, the very definition of a successful business transaction.

New Amsterdam, capital of New Netherland, soon became a busy hub of trade, settlement and privateering. The Dutch brought in colonists from Europe and, in an act for which they have been condemned since, also brought in the first African slaves to North America. However, operations were still more expensive than the Dutch West India Company liked and they tried various methods to cut costs. In an act that should be considered an educational moment, the very business-minded and technically republican Dutch authorities found it beneficial to revert to a sort of feudalism. This became known as the patroon system by which a major investor would be given the title of patroon, a large tract of land and extensive control over it with powers quite similar to those held by feudal lords in the monarchies of the Old World. The patroon was, for his part, expected to bring in at least 50 families of colonists within four years of receiving his title. This did result in growth for the colony, though still not as much profit as was hoped for.

Peter Stuyvesant
There were also conflicts to deal with as well as commerce such as the two-year long war fought with surrounding native tribes by Director Willem Kieft as well as, in 1655, the conquest of New Sweden by a Dutch force of about 700 led by the feisty, one-legged Director Peter Stuyvesant. He was a more hard-line figure than New Netherland was used to, cutting back on religious freedom in favor of adherence to the Dutch Reformed Church, trying to limit Jewish immigration, encouraging Jewish settlers to leave and becoming increasingly anxious about the rapid growth of the neighboring English colonies and their competition with the Netherlands. Stuyvesant was accused of being rather on the tyrannical side and opposition to him sprang up in the colony. Unfortunately, it was at precisely this same time that New Netherland faced its greatest crisis. That crisis arose when King Charles II of Great Britain, recently restored to his throne, determined to conquer the Dutch colony. Although Charles II had been sheltered in The Netherlands during the Interregnum, his preferred foreign policy was one of friendship with France and hostility toward the Dutch.

James, Duke of York
An expedition of four ships and 450 men, led by royalist civil war veteran Richard Nicholls, set out from Plymouth and arrived to besiege New Netherland on August 27, 1664. As was his character, Stuyvesant wanted to put up as much of a fight as possible but, by this time, he lacked the support of many of his own colonists, some of whom were angry about his policies and others who simply wished for nothing to interfere with their business. They preferred trading their Dutch flag for an English one rather than have a destructive battle that would disrupt commerce. This lack of cohesion meant that there was no chance of the Dutch, under Stuyvesant, standing a chance against the English forces and so, on September 8, 1664 Stuyvesant formally surrender the colony to the King of England and New Netherland was no more. The royal connection in all of this was that King Charles II had promised this area of North America to his brother the Duke of York (later King James II) and Richard Nicholls was Groom of the Chamber to the Duke of York and it was the Duke who had chosen him to command the expedition. It seemed only natural then that New Netherland should be renamed New York in the Duke’s honor.

Even though this episode of American colonial history is not well remembered, the evidence of it still exists in New York City today if you know where to look. Perhaps the most famous landmark is St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery which was built by Stuyvesant and is where he is buried. His family later sold the property to the Church of England (under conditions) and it is the oldest church in continuous use in New York City. It also features a bust of Stuyvesant which was sent over by Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands in 1915. The flag of New York City is based on the orange-white-blue tricolor of the Netherlands, “the Prince’s Flag” and even the famous financial center of Wall Street, has its name because that site was formerly where a road was along the palisade surrounding New Netherland and thus came to be referred to as Wall Street. The Dutch population and language persisted in parts of New York longer than most probably realize. President Martin Van Buren, for example, grew up speaking Dutch as his first language and many Dutch words, names and even some traditions still survive in parts of New York to this day.

In any event, that is how New York went from being a Dutch colony to being named after the heir to the English throne and Britain’s last Catholic monarch.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Italian Submarine Campaign of World War II

As detailed previously on these pages (see here), none of the military forces of the major participant powers in World War II have been as unjustly maligned as those of the Kingdom of Italy. Italian defeats have been exaggerated and Italian successes often downplayed or ignored entirely. Because of this, the details of the Italian submarine campaign will no doubt come as a surprise to a great many people. However, the Regia Marina (Italian Royal Navy) entered the war with the largest submarine fleet in the world by tonnage and while most tend to think of the “Battle of the Atlantic” as solely a fight between German U-boat “wolf packs” and Allied convoys, the Italians participated as well, in fact, at one point there were more Italian submarines operating in the Atlantic than German ones. Italian boats also saw extensive service in the Mediterranean (naturally) and the Indian Ocean as well as undertaking operations to East Asian waters and the South Atlantic; areas beyond the range of the smaller, typical Type-VIIC German U-boats. Finally, Italian submarines did a great deal of damage, despite facing many difficulties, against the Allies.

The Smeraldo
When the Kingdom of Italy entered World War II with the declarations of war against Britain and France in June of 1940 the Regia Marina possessed 84 operational submarines under the overall command of Admiral Mario Falangola, succeeded at the end of the following year by Admiral Antonio Legnani. At the outset, their failures outnumbered their successes, which is not too surprising as, aside from some secretive operations in support of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, they had never been tested and both men and boats had bugs that needed working out. However, they had a spirit and determination that would prove formidable. The Smeraldo, for example, a Sirena-class boat of the short to medium range 600 series made the first torpedo attack on British shipping by an Italian submarine but the heavy seas caused the torpedo to miss. However, this same boat later endured the most intense anti-submarine warfare attack of any boat in history with British ships dropping 200 depth charges on her, and she still survived (ultimately this boat was sunk by running into a British mine some time later).

Capt. Enzo Grossi decorated by Adm. Doenitz
After the conquest of France and the establishment of German naval bases on the French west coast, Italian submarines were invited to participate in the campaign to strangle the British Isles. This, of course, meant a dangerous passage through the Straits of Gibraltar under the very noses of the British Royal Navy. Many German U-boats were lost in the straits but, though few are aware of it, no Italian submarine was ever sunk slipping through these dangerous waters. The Italians established themselves at Bordeaux under the name BETASOM (Beta [Bordeaux] Som [Sommergibili]) with 27 submarines in early 1941. Originally, the idea was the German and Italian submarines would work together in coordinated attacks against Allied shipping, however, this soon proved to be more troublesome than effective and few seem to understand why. Ultimately the cause was a difference in training and how German and Italian boats operated as well as the Germans not being what we would call “team players”.

Fairly quickly in the war, German submarines developed a preferred tactic of attacking on the surface at night, submerging to escape counterattack. Italian submarines, however, usually made underwater attacks during the daytime. This was one of the differences that made cooperation difficult. Probably the most significant, however, was the unwillingness of the Germans to place a German communications officer on Italian submarines, though they held overall command of joint-operations. The result of this was that an Italian submarine making contact with the enemy would have to signal Bordeaux which would then have to send the message to Paris to the German naval command which would then relay the message out to the German submarines in the area. Needless to say, this meant that by the time the Germans were told of an enemy convoy, it was too late for them to do anything about it.

Capt. Primo Longobardo
There was also an unwillingness on the part of the Germans to train the Italians to fit in with their preferred way of doing things and what training they did provide was inadequate, expecting the Italians to learn in only two months what it had taken the Germans years to develop and become proficient at. There is evidence that when Italian submarine captains were allowed to train with the Germans, the results were obvious. One such officer was Commander Primo Longobardo, one of the few to train with the Germans, and he proved one of the most successful Italian submarine commanders of the war. As captain of the submarine Torelli he once sank four Allied ships on a single patrol and ultimately accounted for 42,000 tons of Allied shipping sunk. In any event, when coordinated training was finally agreed to, joint operations had already been canceled and each submarine force operated on their own with the Italians mostly hunting in waters around the Azores and some boats dispatched for the South Atlantic, such as in the Brazilian shipping lanes, which they were able to reach more easily because of their greater range.

A lack of cooperation was also evident in the reluctance of the Germans to share their torpedo technology with the Italians. The Germans tried many innovations with their torpedoes, causing some problems as certain designs didn’t work but ultimately resulting in a more effective weapon. The Italians, on the other hand, simply stuck to their older but more reliable model which was not as effective and the Germans would not share their magnetic trigger technology with Italy until it was too late to be of best use. It is for this reason that Italian submarines frequently engaged in surface action as quite often they would make a successful underwater attack using their torpedoes but the target would be badly damaged but not sunk at which point the Italian submarine would surface and finish off the enemy with their deck gun. Italian sub crews also became, out of necessity, quite adept anti-aircraft gunners and this came about due to the nature of their boats.

A submarine on the surface is vulnerable and aircraft are a particularly dangerous enemy. They can be upon you very quickly and do immense damage, making it a life or death matter for a submarine to be able to submerge as fast as possible. As Italian submarines tended to be larger than their average German counterpart, this meant that they were slower to dive. A typical German submarine could submerge in about 20 seconds, whereas the average Italian submarine took between 60 and 120 seconds to get below the waves. One result of this was that, by the time an enemy aircraft was spotted, it was often better to take your chances shooting it out on the surface than be shot full of holes while trying to dive. It was not an enviable situation but it did make Italian AA fire more effective than in other navies. In fact, it was an Italian submarine, which had been shifted to the Germans after 1943 and then to the Japanese after the German surrender, which fired the last shots of World War II, using her AA battery against American bombers while in port in Japan.

Victory for the Leonardo DaVinci
In spite of their boats having their limitations, torpedoes that were not the best and a less than fully cooperative ally, Italian submarines still did a great deal of damage thanks to having some extremely skilled commanders. None was more famous than Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia, captain of the Leonardo DaVinci, the most successful Italian submarine of the war. Nicknamed “Ursus atlanticus”, Gazzana-Priaroggia would ultimately sink over 90,000 tons of Allied shipping, his biggest score being the massive British troopship the Empress of Canada. He was even set to lead a special forces submarine attack on New York harbor but this was postponed and ultimately never carried out due to the 1943 armistice. Earlier that year, Gazzana-Priaroggia was sadly killed in action but was posthumously awarded both the Gold Medal for Military Valor by the King of Italy and the Knights Iron Cross by the Germans for his achievements. By most accounts (there is some dispute as the U.S. ‘updated’ their stats several times after the war) Gazzana-Priaroggia was the most successful non-German submarine commander of all time.

Todaro, the humane hunter
It is also worth noting, given that the Allies later justified their use of unrestricted submarine warfare by retroactively pointing to its use by Italian subs in the Spanish Civil War, that Italian submarines also had a reputation for gallantry and compassion. Every major participant of the war that made extensive use of submarines; the Germans, Americans, Japanese and British, were guilty of sometimes committing atrocities, invariably killing survivors of sunken ships. Japan had by far the most, the British and Americans extremely few and the Germans, well, given the details of the “Laconia Incident”, it is hard for anyone to blame them. However, the Italians were never accused of such cruelty and, indeed, came away from the war with a reputation for actually showing some basic humanity when it was not required. The most famous example of this was Captain Salvatore Bruno Todaro of the Commandante Cappellini which went above and beyond to rescue survivors of sunken ships and put them safely ashore on the Azores. At the same time, Todaro and his boat had multiple victories to their credit and were among the most successful of the Italian submarine fleet. When all was said and done, the Italian submarines sank over a hundred Allied ships in the Atlantic.

However, the Mediterranean Sea was, of course, always supposed to be the primary area of operations for all units of the Regia Marina and it was an enclosed sea of hazards with major British naval installations at Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria and Cyprus. Italian submarine commanders pulled off some extremely daring victories against the British in these waters and aside from merchant shipping also took a heavy toll on Royal Navy warships. Notable successes include the cruisers HMS Bonaventure, HMS Calypso and HMS Coventry which were all sunk by Italian submarines in 1940-41. However, Italian industry could not produce new boats fast enough and the Allied breaking of Axis codes was also a huge blow to the submarine campaign. Nonetheless, Italian submarines in the Mediterranean would open up a new type of undersea warfare which had dramatic results, producing a new type of warrior who could be seen as the precursor of America’s feared SEAL teams.

X-MAS infiltrating the enemy harbor
A special unit, composed of both fast-attack surface craft and undersea weapons known as “human torpedoes” was formed known as the Decima Flottiglia MAS (for Mezzi d’Assalto) or X-MAS (in English, ‘Tenth Assault Vehicle Flotilla’). One man very much associated with this new unit was Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, captain of the submarine Sciré. The “human torpedoes”, as they are often called, were actually nothing of the sort as no torpedoes were involved and, while highly dangerous, were not suicide weapons. The Italians referred to them as ‘maiale’ or ‘pigs’ because these were basically miniature submarines that Italian sailors would ride ‘piggy-back’ into an enemy harbor after being brought into the vicinity by a submarine making a submerged approach. They would cut through any anti-submarine nets, approach the underside of major ships in the harbor and attach mines to the hull. Once they were safely away the mines would detonate and the ships would be crippled or sunk. The sailors would have no hope of returning to their submarine and so could either try to make it to neutral territory or simply surrender after accomplishing their mission.

In December of 1941 such an attack was launched on the British naval base at Alexandria, Egypt with the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant being crippled, a Norwegian tanker sunk and a destroyer, HMS Jervis, being badly damaged. Men of the X-MAS, brought in by the submarine Sciré, launched a similar attack on Gibraltar in September, sinking three enemy ships. Later, operating out of an old tanker in the Spanish port of Algeciras more attacks on Gibraltar were made in December of 1942, sinking two ships and damaging two more. Two more British freighters and an American Liberty Ship were sunk in 1943 prior to the armistice. These attacks, which were almost impossible to guard against, caused considerable panic in the Allied naval forces operating in the Mediterranean. Even after the war, exploits of the Italian undersea warriors were featured in British films such as “The Silent Enemy” of 1958 and the 1962 Anglo-Italian film “The Valiant”. The X-MAS also continued its service with the Italian Social Republic after Mussolini was restored to power by the Germans and would go on to have a reputation as fiercely loyal Fascists. Their commander, Prince Borghese, would ultimately become a pariah among his fellow members of the Roman nobility for attempting a neo-Fascist coup against the post-war Italian Republic.

Capt. Carlo Fecia di Cossato
Ultimately, the armistice, division of Italy and finally the end of the war all caused confusion among the Italian submariners. Most remained loyal to the King and followed orders, turning their boats over to their former enemies, some were seized and forced into the German and later Japanese navies and some, like Prince Borghese, cast their lots with Mussolini and the Germans, to carry on to the bitter end. A most tragic case was that of Captain Carlo Fecia di Cossato, the man who sank more ships than any other Italian submarine commander at the helm of the Tazzoli. Loyal to his King above all, when the armistice came, he followed orders and even sunk seven more ships, German this time, in his new command. However, the abrupt change troubled him, becoming worse as it became clear that the Allies still considered Italy a defeated enemy and would strip Italy of her empire, even territory gained well before the Fascist Era. He was torn apart by conflicting feelings of loyalty and dishonor until he committed suicide in Naples in 1944.

When the war was finally over, with all of the confusion, bitterness and divisions which that caused, the feats of the Italian submarine campaign stand out as further proof of how wrong the popular misconception is of the Royal Italian military in World War II. Italian submarines sank about a million tons of Allied shipping from mid-1940 to 1943. This was almost as much, indeed somewhat more according to some statistics as the ultimately far larger submarine force the Imperial Japanese Navy sunk from the end of 1941 to 1945, the disparity in numbers all the more significant given that over-worked Italian industrial capacity meant that Italy could only commission 30 new boats during the war years whereas Japan commissioned 126 additional subs (not counting midget boats) during the conflict. Italy was also not very far behind the tonnage sunk by the British Royal Navy during the entire course of the war from 1939 to 1945. They played a significant part, did considerable damage to the Allied fleets and did so with skill, heroism and gallantry in the face of immense odds.
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