An Italian Semovente in Sao Paulo, Italy during the defense of Rome on Sept.8, 1943
At 6:30 P.M. on September 8, Eisenhower’s flat Kansas drawl announced over Radio Algiers: “The Italian government has surrendered its armed forces unconditionally…. All Italians who now act to help eject the German aggressors from Italian soil will have the assistance and support of the united nations.” Ten minutes later, having heard no answering confirmation from Radio Rome, Eisenhower authorized the broadcast of Badoglio’s proclamation, the text of which Castellano had provided at Cassibile: “The Italian forces will…cease all acts of hostility against the Anglo-American forces wherever they may be.”
King Victor Emmanuel, Badoglio, and other Italian officials had assembled for a conference in the Quirinal Palace when a Reuters news bulletin at 6:45 P.M. informed them of Eisenhower’s proclamation. After much anguished discussion, the king concluded that Italy could not change sides yet again. Badoglio hastened to the Radio Rome studio, and at 7:45 P.M. affirmed the capitulation.
For 1,184 days, Italy had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Germany. Now she had cast her lot with her erstwhile foes, trusting in providence and an Allied shield for protection from Hitler’s wrath. Neither would stay the hot rake. “Italy’s treachery is official,” Rommel wrote his wife. “We sure had them figured out right.”
In the hours following Badoglio’s announcement, jubilation and confusion radiated from Rome to the remotest hamlet of every Italian province. Citizens exulted at the presumed arrival of peace. But no intelligible orders had been issued to the Italian fleet or to the sixty army divisions of 1.7 million troops. Telephone queries from Italian garrisons in Greece, northern Italy, and elsewhere received incoherent replies or no reply at all. The frantic ring-ring of unheeded phones soon became the totemic sound of capitulation. The armistice caught fourteen of sixteen government ministers by surprise; one summoned a notary to witness his affidavit of utter ignorance.
No effort was made to stop six battalions of German paratroopers tramping into the capital from the south; their commander even paused to buy grapes at a farmer’s market. Grenadiers closed on the city from the north. Rome’s police chief estimated that six thousand German secret agents infested the capital, and within hours the only open escape route was on the Via Tiburtina to the east. It was on this poplar-lined avenue that the royal family fled by night in a green Fiat: the king—“pathetic, very old and rather gaga,” according to a British diplomat—carrying a single shirt and two changes of underwear in a cheap fiberboard suitcase; the beefy queen, ingesting drops of uncertain provenance; and the middle-aged crown prince, Umberto, head in hands, muttering, “My God, what a figure we’re cutting.” Badoglio and a few courtiers fled with them in a seven-car convoy. Crossing the Apennines to the Adriatic port of Pescara, they scattered 50,000 lire among their carabinieri escorts, then boarded the submarine chaser Baionetta for passage to Brindisi, on the heel of the boot. In a suitable epitaph, a Free French newspaper observed, “The House of Savoy never finished a war on the same side it started, unless the war lasted long enough to change sides twice.”
The biggest fish had escaped, but German troops snared thirty generals in Rome, as well as hundreds of Italian officials. A few firefights erupted, around the Caius Cestius pyramid and in Via Cavour and old Trastevere. Italian snipers near the railroad station crouched behind overturned carts to fire at Germans breezing into the Hotel Continentale. Swiss Guards at the Vatican swapped their pikes and halberds for rifles. Looting broke out near the Circus Maximus, as terrified Romans stockpiled cheese and bundled pasta, and buried their valuables in oilcloth parcels. “The Jews are in a panic and trying to leave the city,” one witness reported. Italian envoys pleaded for a chance to egotiate Rome’s fate.
Field Marshal Kesselring was disinclined to parley. He had narrowly escaped death at noon on September 8 in a decapitation attack on Frascati by 130 American B-17s; it was these planes and the subsequent detonation of four hundred tons of high explosives that Taylor and Gardiner heard from the Palazzo Caprara. The hour-long attack obliterated the bucolic vineyard town, including the charming restaurant with its panoramic view of St. Peter’s where Kesselring had placed his command post. An estimated two thousand civilians and dozens of German staff officers died. Temporarily dispossessed of both his headquarters and his smile, Kesselring crawled from the rubble, convinced that the Italians had set him up. Even as he appealed to residual Fascist brotherhood, the field marshal threatened to blow up Rome’s aqueducts and to raze the city. Among those trying to protect the capital, General Carboni mounted a brief, hapless defense; resistance soon sputtered and died. “It is finished, but there is no need to despair,” Carboni told another officer. “I have saved what there is to be saved.”
Kesselring, now viceroy of the Eternal City, shrewdly allowed Italian troops to leave the capital with marching bands and unfurled flags. There would be ample time to settle scores. Much had become clear to the Italophile who had so steadfastly clung to Rome’s pledges of fidelity. He could see in retrospect that “every event was like a flash of sheet lightning, more foreshadowing than clearing the atmosphere.” Suddenly Italy was just “a card missing from the pack.” As for the Italians, Kesselring added, “I loved these people. Now I can only hate them.”