A Chacun Son Boche:
The Allied Push On Berlin, 1917
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous five episodes of this series we followed the events leading from the capture of vital German military papers in 1914 to the folding of the Second Reich in 1917; the Versailles- Geneva peace treaty that ended the First World War; the Spanish flu epidemic that wiped out much of the human race in the first months after the war was over; the establishment of the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s failed attempts to get the United States into the League; the American shift towards isolationism during the 1920s; the start of the Great Depression; the rise to power of fascist regimes in Germany and Italy; the resurgence of Communism in 1930s Russia; the start of the Second World War; and the Soviet invasion of Poland in the spring of 1939. In this segment we’ll discuss the Allied landings on the Italian mainland, the final collapse of Mussolini’s regime, and the fight for Warsaw following the Red Army’s breakthrough on its Polish front.
The lights burned late in 10 Downing Street during the last two weeks of March 1939, and not just because of the need to prepare for an assault on the Italian mainland-- Winston Churchill was gravely troubled by the situation in Poland, and he had strong suspicions that if Stalin succeeded in subjugating the Poles the Red Army would turn its guns on Finland next. There was also the distinct (if then slim)chance Hitler, who had long talked of gaining "living space"1 in the East for the German people, might exploit the Polish people’s distress by mounting his own attack on Poland. With the Wehrmacht’s efforts to push the Anglo-French coalition off German soil making little if any progress Hitler was in desperate need of a successful campaign to boost the German people’s morale and a swift conquest of western Poland might just do the trick.
Hitler’s generals, meanwhile, were leery of attempting any new offensives in eastern Europe until those German territories under Anglo-French occupation had been liberated and the Wehrmacht had regained its previous foothold in Czechoslovakia. But those tasks would prove easier said than done, especially with the RAF stepping up its bombing raids on German war production facilities. Wehrmacht chief of staff General Franz Halder was particularly concerned about the wisdom of a land campaign in Poland at this juncture, worried that it might deplete manpower and material resources at a time when both were urgently needed in the continuing struggle against the Anglo-French alliance. Even Hermann Goering, who shared Hitler’s lust for conquering Poland, privately confided to the Führer that he thought it might be better at least in the short term to concentrate on pushing the British and the French out of the Fatherland. Then, he said, the Reich could deal with Poland at its leisure.
"Living space" had been a high priority on Hitler’s political agenda since his earliest days in the Nazi Party; it had been the primary motive for his Czechoslovakia gambit, and so a major factor in triggering the outbreak of the Second World War. However, the reality of Wehrmacht’s situation on the Czech front and its ongoing troubles with the Anglo-French assault from the west forced him to concede that his generals were probably right in counseling caution where Poland was concerned. Reluctantly he ordered that plans for a German thrust across the Polish border should be shelved until the Czech campaign had been concluded.
By this time, many in Europe were starting to conclude that the style of fascism practiced by men such as Hitler and Mussolini might be less of a solution to their countries’ misfortune than they had previously believed, and as the military luck of the European Axis regimes started to turn sour their ideological pull would gradually suffer a corresponding diminishment. In Romania, King Michael cut his personal and political ties to Romanian Iron Guard leader Ion Antonescu; in Belgium, Rexist party chief Leon Degrelle was swiftly and unceremoniously ousted from office by his own senior deputies; in Spain Falangist rebel commander-in-chief Francisco Franco, who’d been waging a civil war against the Republican government in Madrid for over two and a half years, was compelled to negotiate a cease- fire agreement with the very administration he’d been fighting to topple.2
But the hardest blows against fascism in Europe were still to come. One of those blows would be struck on April 20th, 1939, when Allied troops finally started their long-planned amphibious assault on the Italian mainland, code-named Operation Husky. General Bernard Law Montgomery, mastermind of the victorious British campaign in North Africa, was entrusted with executing the first phase of the invasion, a three-front landing in the area around Cape Sparviento. Montgomery wasn’t so naïve as to think it would be an easy job to gain a foothold at Sparviento, but he was highly optimistic that his landing forces would ultimately prevail against the Italians. He had particular confidence in his Australian troops, who’d been in the forefront of many a tactical triumph during the Allied march across North Africa and were well-suited to operating in rough terrain.
It wouldn’t take long for Montgomery’s confidence to be justified; the Allied landing forces had a firm foothold at Cape Sparviento within twelve hours of their initial assault, and by the second day of Operation Husky Allied ground forces had pushed ten miles inland. The Italian army units defending the Sparviento coast found themselves overmatched by the British and Commonwealth forces and were soon forced into retreat; while this was going on, additional Allied troops were landed near the seaport of Anzio and started pushing southward to meet Mongomery’s troops advancing north from Cape Sparviento.
Mussolini’s already precarious political standing became even shakier as disaster on top of disaster befell his beleaguered army. When Salerno fell to the British on April 30th, and the seaport of Taranto was taken two days later, Count Ciano privately urged his father-in-law to begin peace negotiations with Britain and France before it was too late; the Duce, not seeming to realize or care he was on the verge of one of the worst military defeats Italy had suffered since the modern Italian state was established in 1861, defiantly told Ciano that he would fight his enemies to his last drop of blood no matter whether they were external invaders like the British or foes from within like Italo Balbo, a onetime Mussolini confidant who of late had been calling for the Duce’s resignation.
By May 5th, Allied troops were advancing towards the Gulf of Salerno and the port of Naples was being bombed by RAF planes on a daily basis. On May 8th, Rome was bombed for the first time; that air raid was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Mussolini’s domestic opponents. Convinced that if the Duce remained in power much longer he would drag Italy down to its ultimate perdition, they decided it was time to take the reins of power out of his hands. The morning after the Allied air raid on the Italian capital, Fascist Grand Council leader Dino Grandi met with Balbo and Italian army general Pietro Badoglio to organize an uprising against Mussolini.
On May 12th, 1939 a special meeting of the Grand Council was convened in Rome. Ostensibly the meeting was being held to discuss measures for the defense of Rome against the advancing British and Commonwealth armies; in reality, however, Mussolini had been lured into a trap-- the meeting’s true purposes were to vote him out of power and distract his attention long enough for General Badoglio’s troops to arrest him. As the Duce would later learn to his distress and outrage, this insurrection was being carried out with the full acquiescence of his son-in-law Count Ciano, who after discussions with Badoglio and Grandi had reluctantly conceded that overthrowing the Duce was perhaps the only way to gain peace for Italy.
Mussolini arrived at 12:30 PM Rome time; fifteen minutes later, Dino Grandi briefly excused himself claiming that he had left some important papers in his car. As soon as he was out of earshot of the Duce, Grande phoned General Badoglio to give him the code signal for the deployment of the army detail that would take Mussolini into custody. At 1:15 PM, Badoglio’s troops entered the council chamber and informed Mussolini he was under arrest. Outraged, the Duce demanded an explanation for what was happening and was told that he no longer had the confidence of the king, the party, or the people and he was therefore being removed from office. As a vehemently protesting Mussolini was dragged off to Rome’s central prison, the council unanimously passed a motion officially stripping him of his positions as chief of the Fascist Party and head of state for the Italian government; before the meeting adjourned, the council had also passed with just one dissenting vote a motion naming Grandi as Italy’s new prime minister.3
The next day one of Count Ciano’s emissaries flew to Geneva to present the British ambassador to Switzerland with Ciano’s proposals for a peace accord between Italy and the Allies; the ambassador in turn forward Ciano’s peace feeler to Prime Minister Churchill, who then phoned Eduoard Daladier in Paris to get his take on the Italian foreign minister’s offer. Once the Allied political leadership was satisfied that the peace overture was genuine, Churchill ordered a suspension of all British and Commonwealth combat operations in the Italian theater pending the conclusion of further cease-fire talks.
Hitler was furious at this turn of events; not only had his most important foreign ally been betrayed by his own people, but now the Anglo-French coalition was about to gain a new springboard along the Reich’s southern borders from which Allied ground forces could mount thrusts into Austria and southern Germany. Deprived of the option to send troops into Italy to prevent the collapse of what was left of the Fascist regime,4 Hitler opted to do the next best thing and send a covert rescue squad to break Mussolini out of jail. "Though Italy has abandoned Germany," he told Joseph Goebbels, "Germany must not abandon the Duce."
On May 16th, 1939 Italian and Allied diplomats met in Rome to sign the formal articles of surrender by which Italy agreed to end hostilities with Great Britain and France. This was, to all intents and purposes, the final nail in the Pact of Steel’s casket. Even if the surrender agreement hadn’t required the Italians to dismantle the Fascist Party as a precondition to peace, they would have sooner or later dissolved it of their own accord-- they were sick to death of just about everything remotely associated with Fascism, including Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler. Indeed one of Dino Grandi’s first official acts as Italy’s new prime minister was to sever diplomatic relations with Germany; the day after the surrender articles were signed he ordered all Italian diplomats recalled from Germany and all German diplomats expelled from Italy.
This posed a serious obstacle for the secret operation to rescue Mussolini from prison-- serious, but not insurmountable. SS officer Otto Skorzeny, the man Hitler assigned to lead the rescue team, had a particular knack for problem-solving. Knowing that (A)Switzerland, a neutral country, was German-speaking and still had diplomatic ties with Italy and (B)Switzerland was also home to the International Red Cross, Skorzeny arranged for himself and his team to be disguised as Red Cross officials to make it easier for them to slip onto Italian soil undetected and smuggle Mussolini out of jail.
The plan almost went awry when Mussolini insisted that his longtime mistress Clara Petacci also be taken out of Italy; only after Petacci had been sworn to secrecy about the rest of the rescue operation did Skorzeny agree to Mussolini’s request. While a small detachment of Skorzeny’s men flew Petacci to safety in Vienna, the rest of his team smuggled Mussolini across the Italian border into Switzerland; once the Duce reached Geneva, he was flown to Berlin for an audience with Hitler.
Publicly Hitler expressed boundless optimism that Mussolini would soon return to power and drive the Allies out of Italy; in private, however, he agreed with Goebbels’ cynical assessment that "the Duce has no great political future" and that Mussolini’s only remaining value to the Axis cause was as a propaganda weapon. Even that value would, in the long run, prove to be quite limited.
Eight days after the Italian surrender pact was signed, the Grandi government formally declared war on Germany. Meanwhile in eastern Europe, a disquieting new development had arisen: the Red Army forces in Poland had broken through the center of the Polish front and were starting to push towards Warsaw. A flanking move by Soviet armored divisions in the north had distracted the Polish army high command, allowing Soviet infantry and cavalry units in the center of the Red Army lines to hammer Polish defenses in that sector and open a breach through which additional Soviet divisions could penetrate.
Casualties were heavy on both sides, but as the struggle wore on the Red Army’s numerical superiority began to tell and by June 13th Soviet ground forces had advanced to within thirty-five miles of the Warsaw suburb of Praga. Sure that Polish morale was about to crack, Stalin kicked off a propaganda campaign to supplement his military assaults; leaflets were dropped urging Polish troops to lay down their rifles and Polish civilians to rebel against the Warsaw government, and a radio commentator known only as "Captain Thadeusz" broadcast daily half-hour tirades denouncing the Polish government as ‘corrupt warmongers’ deserving of the hangman’s rope.
Still Warsaw refused to capitulate. Even a massive Soviet air raid against the Polish capital on June 22nd couldn’t crack the morale of the city’s residents or shake the Poles’ determination to continue resisting the Soviets; many Polish army commanders actually used the Warsaw bombing raid as a rallying point to encourage their troops to be even more aggressive in fighting the Red Army than they had been before-- and before, they had been very aggressive indeed. But determination can only take an army so far without sufficient supplies or weaponry to back it up, and in early July Praga fell to the Red Army after a four-day struggle that left more than a third of the city in ruins.
Praga’s capture set off alarm bells within the upper echelons of the Polish government; it meant that the Red Army was now within striking distance of Warsaw proper. Thadeuz Kazprzycki, the longtime Polish war minister who had been appointed to head up a provisional emergency government shortly after the Soviets breached the center of the Polish front lines, authorized a precautionary evacuation of some of his cabinet ministers to the city of Lodz and warned some of his senior army officers they might have to withdraw their remaining troops from eastern Poland before too long.
The acting Polish prime minister’s wariness was justified; on July 11th the Red Army opened its long-anticipated assault on metropolitan Warsaw, attacking the city along four separate fronts. Soviet tanks and infantry, backed by punishing artillery bombardment from Red Army positions inside Soviet-occupied Praga, crossed the Vistula just after 10:30 AM local time and struck Polish defensive positions in the Zoliborz and Stare Miasto districts of the city. Less than twenty minutes later Soviet troops crossed the Poniatowski Bridge to hit central Warsaw and the Czerniakow district.
The fight for Warsaw was the bloodiest urban battle Europe had seen in at least a generation. Entire blocks of the Polish capital were bombarded until they had literally been pounded to dust. Soviet and Polish ground units alike lost men by the bushel in long, bitter house-to-house street fighting and the skies grew thick with clouds of smoke from fires set off by the detonation of bombs and shells on those buildings not already leveled by the initial Soviet artillery barrage. By 3:30 PM that afternoon Warsaw’s central railway station was under attack and the Polish presidential palace had been blasted to rubble.
In spite of the ferocity of the Soviet assault, the Polish government was able to get its remaining cabinet ministries out of Warsaw and on board trucks bound for Lodz. But for the most part, however, fortune was against the Poles in their fight to retain control of their nation’s capital; by 2:15 AM on the morning of July 12th the Red Army controlled 80 percent of metropolitan Warsaw and were making inroads into the Warsaw suburb of Wola. The Polish army high command, its back to the wall, tried to wage a counterassault against the Soviet forces only to have that operation collapse just hours after it began.
At 8:30 AM on the morning of July 13th, Radio Moscow issued this announcement: "Our glorious Red Army has won the struggle for the Polish capital city of Warsaw..."
To Be Continued
1Or Lebensraum, to use the original German term.
2Franco had hoped that German and Italian aid might help him win the day, but the outbreak of the Second World War slowed down and eventually stopped the flow of military supplies from those countries. For a look at what might have transpired if Franco had been able to receive greater material assistance from Hitler and Mussolini, read John H. Gill’s "Viva Franco!: The Falangist Conquest of Madrid" in the Peter G. Tsouras-edited book The Franco Options: Alternate Decisions & Consequences of the Spanish Civil War
(copyright 2007 by Greenhill Books).
3The dissenting vote came from Grandi himself; he felt Pietro Badoglio would make a more suitable choice.
4The Wehrmacht had a top-secret contingency plan code-named Operation Alaric which called for German troops to occupy Italy in the event the Mussolini regime was overthrown by internal revolt or invasion from hostile foreign powers; however, it was forced to scrap that plan due to the situation along the Czech border and its ongoing struggle to push Anglo-French forces out of western Germany. For a glimpse of how the German army might have successfully implemented Alaric, see Stephen R. Badsey’s essay "Operation Alaric: The Nazi Campaign In Italy" in the Jonathan North-edited book Mussolini Victorious:Alternate Triumphs Of The Second Roman Empire (copyright 2006 by Greenhill Books).