Operation Achse (ii)

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This was the German reuse of the ‘Achse’ codename for their seizure of key points and installations in Italy (and of Italian positions in southern France, the Balkans and the Aegean) and the disarmament of the Italian forces after the announcement of the Italian armistice with the Allies on 8 September 1943 and its implementation on the following day (9/19 September 1943).

This operation was initially planned as ‘Alarich’ and then combined with ‘Schwarz’ (i) to create the definitive ‘Achse’ (ii). Despite the protests of the Italian government, and indeed in the well-founded German belief that Italy would soon defect either to neutrality or indeed to the Allies, several German divisions had already entered Italy after the fall of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in July 1943, when Italy was officially still an ally of Germany. When the armistice was announced, the German forces moved rapidly to take over the Italian zones of occupation in the Balkans and southern France, and to disarm the Italian forces in Italy. In some cases, the Italian troops resisted the Germans, most notably in the Greek island of Kephalonia, where more than 4,500 men of Generale di Brigata Luigi Gherzi’s 33a Divisione montagna ‘Acqui’ were murdered after they had surrendered. In other cases, individual soldiers or whole units, such as Generale di Divisione Adolfo Infante’s 24a Divisione ‘Pinerolo’ in Thessaly, went over to the local resistance movements. Only in isolated areas such as Sardinia, Corsica, Calabria and the southern part of Apulia, where they had a considerable numerical superiority, were the Italian troops able to withstand the Germans until the arrival of the Allied forces.

According to the German accounts, the number of Italian troops disarmed was 1,006,370 in the form of 415,682 in northern Italy, 102,340 in southern Italy, 8,722 in France, 164,986 in Yugoslavia, and 265,000 in mainland Greece and the Aegean islands. Also seized were weapons and other military equipment totalling 1,285,871 rifles, 39,007 machine guns, 13,906 sub-machine guns, 8,736 mortars, 2,754 field guns, 5,568 other pieces of artillery, 16,631 vehicles, and 977 armoured vehicles. Only 197,000 Italian soldiers continued the war alongside the Germans. Of these, about 94,000 made this choice immediately, but the other 103,000 made their decision later to escape the harsh conditions of the German labour camps in which they were being held. Between 600,000 and 650,000 men remained in the camps, where something between 37,000 and 50,000 of them died.

In ‘Achse’ (ii) the Germans had also planned to take the whole Italian fleet, but this was frustrated by the fact that the major surface units of the Italian fleet were already on their way from La Spezia and other Italian mainland naval bases to Malta as part of the armistice agreement with the Allies. By the terms of the armistice, Ammiraglio di Armata Carlo Bergamini’s Forze Navali di Battaglia departed the main naval base at La Spezia with the battleships Roma, Vittorio Veneto and Italia, light cruisers Eugenio di Savoia, Emanuele Filiberto Duca d’Aosta and Raimondo Montecuccoli, and destroyers Mitragliere, Fuciliere, Carabiniere, Velite, Legionario, Alfredo Oriani, Artigliere and Grecale. These ships then met the light cruisers Luigi di Savoia Duca degli Abruzzi, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Attilio Regolo, and torpedo boat Libra, which had departed Genoa.

The combined force was located by German aerial reconnaissance and attacked to the west of the Strait of Bonifacio during the afternoon of 9 September by 11 Dornier Do 217 bombers, armed with FX 1400 radio-controlled bombs, of Hauptmann Bernhard Jope’s (from 10 September Hauptmann Gerhard Döhler’s) III/Kampfgeschwader 100, a specialised guided-weapons unit, operating from Istres near Marseille. One missile scored a direct hit on Roma, which sank, and Italia was damaged by hits.

The destroyers Antonio da Noli and Ugolini Vivaldi, steaming to the south from Castellamare, were shelled by German coastal batteries in the Strait of Bonifacio, and were sunk by mines and gunfire respectively: some of Ugolino Vivaldi’s survivors were rescued by the British submarine Sportsman, Attilio Regolo, Mitragliere, Fuciliere and Carabiniere were also detached to pick up survivors, and the torpedo boats Libra, Orione, Orsa, Impetuoso and Pegaso were also summoned to the scene. Libra and Orione later steamed to Bône and the others put into Port Mahon in the Balearic islands group, part of Spain, where they were interned, although Pegaso and Impetuoso sank after colliding just outside the harbour.

The rest of the Italian fleet continued to Malta under the command of Ammiraglio di Divisione Romeo Oliva, and was met on 10 September by the British battleships Warspite and Valiant with the destroyers Faulknor, Fury, Echo, Intrepid, Raider, Free French Terrible and Free Greek Vasilissa Olga.

On 9 September Ammiraglio di Squadra Alberto da Zara put to sea from Taranto with the battleships Andrea Doria and Caio Duilio, light cruisers Luigi Cadorna and Pompeo Magno and destroyer Nicoloso da Recco, and these warships reached Malta on 10 September escorted by the battleship King George V. In addition, the battleship Giulio Cesare, aircraft depot ship Miraglia, destroyer Augusto Riboty, and torpedo boat Sagittario reached Malta from a number of ports in the Adriatic Sea.

The 33 serviceable Italian submarines, either concentrated off Salerno in expectation of tackling the ‘Avalanche’ landings or in Italian harbours, all succeeded in reaching Allied harbours. Moreover, by 12 September a total of 11 torpedo boats, eight corvettes and a number of smaller craft had reached Palermo in Allied-held Sicily from harbours in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

In ports occupied by German troops in the course of the implementation of ‘Achse’ (ii), a few ships were seized intact by the German navy and soon refitted for German service. These were the destroyers Turbine and Francesco Crispi at Piraeus to become TA 14 and TA 15; the torpedo boats Castelfidaro and Solferino at Souda Bay to become TA 16 and TA 18, San Martino and Calatafimi at Piraeus to become TA 17 and TA 19, and Impavido and Ardito at Portoferraio to become TA 23 and TA 25; the submarines Finzi and Bagnolini at Bordeaux to become UIT-21 and UIT-22), Giuliani and Torelli at Singapore to become UIT-23 and UIT-25, Cappellini at Sabang to become UIT-24, and S 1 to S 9 in the Baltic to revert to U-428, U-746, U-747, U-429, U-748, U-430, U-749, U-1161 and U-750, which were their original designations before transfer to Italian control; and the corvette Vespa at Pozzuoli to become UJ 2221.

Most Italian warships which were not currently operational, largely through damage or because they were under repair, were scuttled or otherwise sabotaged by their crews. These included the battleship Conte di Cavour at Trieste; the heavy cruisers Bolzano and Gorizia and the light cruiser Taranto at La Spezia, light cruiser Bari at Livorno, FR 11 (ex-French Jean de Vienne) at Toulon and FR 12 (ex-French Galissonnière) at Toulon; the gunboat (old cruiser) Cattaro (ex-Yugoslav Dalmacija and later German Niobe); the destroyers Nicolo Zeno at La Spezia, Corazziere, Maestrale and Dardo at Genoa (the last later became the German TA 31), Premuda (ex-Yugoslav Dubrovnik and later German TA 32) at Genoa, Sebenico (ex-Yugoslav Beograd and later German TA 43) at Venice, Antonio Pigafetta (later German TA 44) at Fiume, FR 21 (ex-French Lion) and FR 22 (ex-French Panthère) at La Spezia, FR 24 (ex-French Valmy) at Savona, FR 32 (ex-French Siroco) at Genoa, FR 33 (ex-French Adroit) at Toulon, FR 34 (ex-French Lansquenet) at Imperia, FR 35 and FR 36 (ex-French Bison and Foudroyant) at Toulon, and FR 37 (ex-French Hardi) at Savona; the torpedo boats Cascino, Ghibli, Montanari and Procione at La Spezia, Papa at Genoa, Insidioso (later German TA 21) at Pola, Missori (later German TA 22) at Durazzo, La Masa and Partenope at Naples, Audace (later German TA 20) at Venice, and Lira (later German TA 49) at La Spezia; the submarines Ambra, Sirena, Sparide (later German UIT-15), Volframio and Murena (later German UIT-16) at La Spezia, Aradam at Genoa, Argo and Beilul at Monfalcone, Ametista and Serpente at Ancona, Nautilo (later German UIT-19) at Venice, FR 113 (ex-French Requin) at Genoa, FR 114 (ex-French Espadon) at Castellamare, FR 115 (ex-French Dauphin) at Pozzuoli, the ex-French Poincaré at Genoa, and Baiamonti (ex-Yugoslav Smelt) at La Spezia; the corvettes Berenice at Trieste, Euterpe and Persefone (later German UJ 2228 and UJ 2227) at La Spezia, Artemide, Antilope and Camoscio (later German UJ 2226, UJ 6082 and UJ 6081) at Livorno, FR 51 (ex-French Batailleuse and later German SG 23) at La Spezia, FR 53 (ex-French Chamois) at Toulon, FR 54 (ex-French Impetueuse and later German SG 17) at Toulon, FR 55 (ex-French Curieuse and later German SG 16), and FR 56 (ex-French Didaigneuse) at Toulon; and many smaller vessels.

In addition to these existing vessels, there were also several new warships currently fitting out and, except for the largest, these were later completed and commissioned into German service. These ships were the battleship Impero (abandoned) at Trieste; the aircraft carriers Sparviero and Aquila (ex-passenger liners Augustus and Roma, and both abandoned) at Genoa; the light cruisers Etna and Vesuvio (abandoned) at Trieste, Cornelio Silla (abandoned) at Genoa, Giulio Germanico (scuttled by the Germans) at Castellamare, Caio Mario (sabotaged) at La Spezia, and Ottaviano Augusto (abandoned) at Ancona; the destroyer Corsaro (ex-Squadrista and later German TA 33); the torpedo boats Intrepido, Arturo, Auriga, Rigel, Eridano and Dragone (later German TA 26, TA 24, TA 27, TA 28, TA 29 and TA 30) at Genoa, Stella Polare (later German TA 36) at Fiume, and Gladio, Spada, Daga and Pugnale (later German TA 37, TA 38, TA 39 and TA 40) at Trieste; the submarines Grongo (later German UIT-20) at Muggiano, CM 1 (later German UIT-17) at Monfalcone and S 10 (later German U-1162) at Danzig; and the corvettes Egeria and Melpomene (later German UJ 201 and UJ 202) at Monfalcone, Colubrina and Spingarda (later German UJ 205 and UJ 208) at Venice, and Tuffetto (later German UJ 2222) at Genoa.

Only a few of the vessels captured while still under construction were eventually taken into German service. These vessels were the torpedo boats Lancia and Alabarda (German TA 41 and TA 42) at Trieste, and Spica, Fionda and Balestra (German TA 45, TA 46 and TA 47) at Fiume; the submarines R 10, R 11 and R 12 (German UIT-1, UIT-2 and UIT-3) at La Spezia, R 7, R 8 and R 9 (German UIT-4, UIT-5 and UIT-6) at Monfalcone, Bario, Litio, Sodio, Potassio, Rame, Ferro, Piombo and Zinco (German UIT-7, UIT-8, UIT-9, UIT-10, UIT-11, UIT-12, UIT-13 and UIT-14) at Monfalcone, and CM 2 (German UIT-18) at Monfalcone); and the corvettes Tersicore and Euridice (German UJ 203 and UJ 204) at Monfalcone, Bombarda, Carabina and Scure (German UJ 206, UJ 207 and UJ 2090) at Venice, Marangone, Strolaga and Ardea (German UJ 2223, UJ 2224 and UJ 2225) at Genoa, and Capriolo, Alee, Renna, Cervo, Daino and Stambecco (German UJ 6083, UJ 6084, UJ 6085, UJ 6086, UJ 6087 and UJ 6088) at Livorno.

One of the few successful Italian ripostes against the German aggression in this period was the so-called Action off Bastia in the waters of the Vichy French island of Corsica. The action was also one of the first acts of resistance by the Italian armed forces after the armistice of Cassibile. When the armistice between Italy and the Allied powers was announced, on the evening of 8 September 1943, the harbour of Bastia in Italian-occupied Corsica, was filled with Italian and German vessels: the former included the torpedo boats Aliseo and Ardito, and the merchant vessels Humanitas and Sassari, while the latter included the submarine chasers UJ 2203 (ex-French survey vessel Austral) and UJ 2219 (ex-Belgian yacht Insuma) and five Marinefährprahme ferry barges (F 366, F 387, F 459, F 612 and F 623). The Italian corvette Cormorano was on patrol off Bastia.

The German and Italian local commanders soon reached an agreement by which the numerically smaller German forces on the island would be allowed to evacuate to the Italian mainland. However, the German forces prepared a surprise attack to seize the Italian ships moored inside the harbour. This undertaking began at 23.45 on 8 September, when two groups of German troops stormed Ardito, which was severely damaged and lost 70 of her 180-strong crew killed and the others taken prisoner. The Germans also took Humanitas and Sassari: on board the former, the German gunners manning the anti-aircraft guns turned their weapons on the Italian crew and soldiers aboard, and the Italian look-outs were stabbed to death or killed with grenades.

Aliseo had just left the harbour when the German attack began. Shortly after dawn on 9 September, a combat team of the 10o Raggruppamento Celere Bersaglieri made a counterattack which led to the recapture of the port as well as of Ardito, Humanitas and Sassari. The German flotilla was ordered to leave the harbour but, as soon as it did so, its ships were shelled by the 3-in (76-mm) guns of the Italian coastal batteries, which damaged UJ 2203 and some of the MFPs.

Aliseo was then ordered by the port commander to attack and destroy the German units. Soon after 07.00 the German flotilla, proceeding as a column led by UJ 2203, opened fire on Aliseo, which herself opened return fire at 07.06 at a range of 9,075 yards (8300 m). At 07.30 Aliseo was hit by a 3.465-in (88-mm) shell in the engine room and temporarily left dead in the water, but the damage was quickly repaired and the torpedo boat closed, engaged and sank her adversaries one after another. After taking several hits, at 08.20 UJ 2203 blew up, and 10 minutes later UJ 2219 was also destroyed as her magazine was hit and exploded. Between 08.30 and 08.35 Aliseo also sank F 366, F 459 and F 623. Cormorano also became involved during the final stage of the engagement and, with Aliseo, compelled F 387 and F 612 to run themselves aground, after which they were abandoned and destroyed. Cormorano also sank a Luftwaffe rescue boat.

Some 25 German survivors were rescued by Aliseo, which then with the damaged Ardito steamed toward Portoferraio as ordered. The damage suffered by Ardito was so great that the ship had to be left behind in Portoferraio, where she was eventually seized by the Germans.

Other German losses in Bastia harbour were the torpedo boat TA 11 (ex-FR 43, ex-French Iphigénie) and the ex-Italian patrol boats VAS 208, VAS 214, VAS 219 and VAS 220.