Italian resistance movement

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Memorial stone in Soragna for two Italian partisans who died there in 1944

The Italian resistance movement (Italian: Resistenza italiana or just Resistenza) is an umbrella term for a number of resistance groups which opposed the occupying German forces and the Italian Fascist puppet regime of the Italian Social Republic during the later years of World War II. It was formed by pro-Allied Italians, following the Allied invasion of the country, the armistice between Italy and Allied armed forces, and German military occupation of northern Italy. The movement is also known as the Italian resistance and the Italian partisans. The brutal conflict they took part in is referred to as the Italian Liberation War (when referring to the part they took in the Italian Campaign against the Axis) or as the Italian Civil War (when referring specifically to the conflict with the Fascists). The modern Italian Republic was declared to be founded on the struggle of the resistance and the achievements of its leaders, whose political allegiance was mixed and sometimes contentious.

Resistance by Italian armed forces[edit]

In Italy[edit]

Bodies of uniformed men on a sidewalk
Unidentified uniformed Italians shot by invading Germans in Rome, September 1943

The earliest acts of armed resistance to the German occupation following the armistice between Italy and Allied armed forces were undertaken by the Italian regular forces: the Italian Armed Forces and the Carabinieri military police. The best-known battle of that period broke out in the capital, Rome, the day the armistice was announced. Regio Esercito units such as the Sassari Division, the Granatieri di Sardegna, the Piave Division, the Ariete II Division, the Centauro Division, the Piacenza Division and the "Lupi di Toscana" Division (in addition to Carabinieri, infantry and coastal artillery regiments) were deployed around the city and along the roads leading to it. German Fallschirmjäger and Panzergrenadiere were initially repelled but (despite being outnumbered and enduring heavy losses) slowly gained the upper hand, aided by their experience and superior Panzer component. The defenders were hampered by the escape of King Victor Emmanuel III, Marshal Pietro Badoglio and their staff to Brindisi, which left the generals in charge of the city without a coordinated defence plan. This caused Allied support to be canceled at the last minute, since the Fallschirmjäger took the drop zones where the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division was scheduled to be airdropped; Brigadier General Maxwell D. Taylor had crossed the lines and gone to Rome to personally supervise the operation. The Centauro II Division, not participating in the battle, also contributed to the defeat since its German-made tanks could have turned the tables; however, given its dubious allegiance (composed primarily of ex-Blackshirts) it was not fielded. By 10 September, the Germans had penetrated downtown Rome and the Granatieri (aided by civilians) made their last stand at Porta San Paolo. At 4 pm, General Giorgio Carlo Calvi di Bergolo signed the order of surrender; the Italian divisions were disbanded, and their members taken prisoner. Although some officers participating in the battle later joined the resistance, the clash was not motivated by anti-German sentiment but by the necessity to defend the Italian capital and resist the Italian soldiers' disarmament. Generals Raffaele Cadorna, Jr. (commander of Ariete II) and Giuseppe Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo (later executed by the Germans) joined the underground; General Gioacchino Solinas (commander of the Granatieri) instead opted for the pro-German Italian Social Republic.[1]

Outside Italy[edit]

In the days following 8 September 1943 most servicemen, left without orders from higher echelons, were disarmed and shipped to POW camps in the Third Reich (often by smaller German outfits). However, some garrisons stationed in occupied Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia and Italy engaged in armed combat against the Germans. Admirals Inigo Campioni and Luigi Mascherpa led an attempt to defend Rhodes, Kos, Leros and other Dodecanese islands from their former allies. With reinforcements from SAS, SBS and British Army troops under the command of Generals Francis Gerrard Russell Brittorous and Robert Tilney, the defenders held on for a month. However, the Wehrmacht took hold of the islands through air and sea landings by infantry and Fallschirmjäger supported by Luftwaffe aircraft. Both Campioni and Mascherpa were captured and executed at Verona for high treason. On 13 September 1943, the Acqui Division stationed in Cefalonia was ordered by Comando Supremo (Italian High Command) to attack the Germans, despite ongoing negotiations. After a ten-day battle, the Germans executed thousands of officers and enlisted men in retaliation. Those killed in the massacre of the Acqui Division included division commander, General Antonio Gandin.

Other Italian forces remained trapped in Yugoslavia when the armistice was announced and some decided to fight alongside the local resistance. Elements of the Taurinense Division, the Venezia Division, the Aosta Division and the Emilia Division were assembled in the Italian Garibaldi Partisan Division, part of the Yugoslav People's Liberation Army. When the unit finally returned to Italy at the end of the war, half its members had been killed or were listed as missing in action.

Italian military internees[edit]

The Italian soldiers captured by the Germans numbered around 650,000-700,000 (some 45,000 others were killed in combat, executed, or died during transport), of whom over 40,000 later died in the camps in Germany and occupied Poland. Most chose to refuse cooperation with the Third Reich despite hardship, chiefly to maintain their oath of fidelity to the King. Their former allies designated them Italienische Militär-Internierte ("Italian military internees") to deny them prisoner of war status and the rights granted by the Geneva Convention. After decades of obscurity, theirs has been recognized as an act of unarmed resistance on a par with the armed confrontation of other Italian servicemen.[2]

Underground resistance[edit]

Benito Mussolini "Il Duce" captured and executed by Italian partisans in April 1945

In the first major act of resistance following the German occupation, the city of Naples was liberated through a chaotic popular rebellion when its people rose in the last days of September 1943 before the Allied arrival. Elsewhere, the nascent movement was initially composed of various independently operating groups being organized and led by members of political parties previously outlawed by the Fascist regime or by former officers of the Royal Italian Army. Later the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (Committee of National Liberation, or CLN), created by the Italian Communist Party, the Italian Socialist Party, the Partito d'Azione (a republican liberal socialist party), Democrazia Cristiana and other minor parties, took control of the movement in accordance with King Victor Emmanuel III's ministers and the Allies. The CLN was set up by partisans behind German lines and had the support of most groups in the region.[3]

The main resistance formations included three groups of different political orientations: the communist Garibaldi Brigades, the Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Freedom) Brigades related to the Partito d'Azione, and the socialist Matteotti Brigades. Smaller groups included Christian democrats and monarchists, such as the Brigate Fiamme Verdi (Green Flame Brigades), 1 Gruppo Divisioni Alpine founded by Enrico Martini, and Organizzazione Franchi founded by Edgardo Sogno, as well as anarchist and apolitical groups. Relations among the groups were not always good. For example, in 1945, the Garibaldi partisans under Yugoslav Partisan command attacked and killed several partisans of the Catholic and azionista Osoppo groups in the province of Udine. Tensions between the Catholics and the Communists in the movement led to the foundation of the Fiamme Verdi as a separate formation.[4] The Fiamme Verdi did not belong to the approximately 4% of Italian Resistance groups that were formal Catholic organisations, but instead was classed in the 21% of resistance groups that were "independent", in which the Fiamme Verdi was not formally a Catholic group, but had a very strong Catholic presence. Nevertheless, just as there were Catholics within the Garibaldi Brigades, so there were non-Catholics within the Fiamme Verdi.[5]

Partisan movement[edit]

Map of Italy during the Civil War, focusing on the Italian Social Republic

Rodolfo Graziani estimated the partisan strength at around 70,000-80,000 by May 1944.[6] Some 41% of them were Communists of the Garibaldi Brigades and 29% were Actionists of the Giustizia e Libertà Brigades.[7] One of the strongest units, the 8th Garibaldi Brigade, had 8,050 men (450 without arms) and operated in the Romagna area.[6] The CLN mostly operated in the Alpine area, Apennine area and Po Valley of the RSI as well as in OZAK and in OZAV.[6] Its losses amounted to 16,000 killed, wounded or captured between September 1943 and May 1944.[6] According to one estimate, the resistance lost some 50,000 fighters through the entire conflict.[8]

An Italian partisan in Florence on August 14, 1944
Partisan Alfredo Sforzini

Partisan unit sizes varied, depending on logistics (such as the ability to arm, clothe, and feed members) and the amount of local support. The basic unit was the squadra (squad), with three or more squads (usually five) comprising a distaccamento (detachment). Three or more detachments made a brigata (brigade), of which two or more made a divisione (division). In some places, several divisions formed a gruppo divisione (divisional group). These divisional groups were responsible for a zona d'operazione (operational group).

While the largest contingents operated in mountainous districts of the Alps and the Apennine Mountains, there were also large formations in the Po River flatland. In the large towns of northern Italy, such as Piacenza and the surrounding valleys near the Gothic Line, in the Montechino castle there was a key partisan headquarters. The Gruppi di Azione Patriottica (Patriotic Action Groups, or GAP) carried out acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare, and the Squadre di Azione Patriottica (Patriotic Action Squads, or SAP) arranged strike actions and propaganda campaigns. Not unlike the French Resistance, women were often important members and couriers of the resistance movement.[9]

Like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, Italian partisans seized whatever guns they could find. The first weapons were brought by ex-soldiers willing to carry on the fight against the German occupiers from the Regio Esercito inventory: Carcano rifles, Beretta M 1934 and M1935 pistols, Bodeo M1889 revolvers, SRCM and OTO hand grenades, Fiat-Revelli Modello 1935, Breda 30 and Breda M37 machine guns. Later, captured K98ks, MG34s, MG42s, the iconic potato-masher grenades, Lugers and Walther P38s were added to partisan kits. Submachine guns (such as the MP 40) were initially scarce, and usually reserved for squad leaders. Automatic weapons became more common as they were captured in combat and as the Social Republic regime soldiers began defecting to the underground, bringing their own guns. Beretta MABs began appearing in larger numbers in October 1943, when they were spirited away en masse from the Beretta factory which was producing them for the Wehrmacht. Additional weapons (chiefly of British origin) were airdropped by the Allies: PIATs, Lee-Enfield rifles, Bren light machine guns and Sten guns.[10] U.S.-made weapons were provided on a smaller scale from the Office of Strategic Services: Thompson submachine guns (both M1928 and M1), M3 submachine guns, United Defense M42s and folding-stock M1 carbines. Other airdrop supplies included explosives, clothing, boots, food rations and money (used to buy weapons or to compensate civilians for confiscations).

The resistance in the countryside[edit]

Resistance monument at Lys Pass in the Alps (2008)
Partisan memorial Parma

The Italian resistance took place in most of Italy but the worst conditions and fighting took place in the more mountainous regions of the country. Resources were scarce and living conditions were terrible. Due to the limited supplies in the area the resistance took to guerrilla warfare. This involved groups of 40-50 fighters ambushing and harassing the Nazis and their allies. The size of the brigades was reflective of the resources available to the partisans. The landscape could not support large numbers of fighters in one area and mobility was key to their success. Their knowledge of the land and terrain more often than not led to narrow escapes in small groups when almost surrounded by the Germans. The partisans also did not have permanent headquarters or bases, making it extremely difficult to destroy the entire organization.[11]

The resistance fighters themselves also relied heavily on the local populace for support and supplies. They would often barter or ask for food, blankets and medicine. When the partisans would take supplies from families they would often hand out promissory notes that the peasants could cash at the end of the war for money. The partisans would sleep in farms and farmhouses abandoned by the peasants and even borrowed livestock. There is one account from Paolino 'Andrea' Ranieri (a political commissar at the time) of the fighters using donkeys to move equipment at night while during the day the peasants used them in the fields. The Nazis tried to break the relationship between the populace and the resistance by adopting a brutal reprisal policy of killing 10 Italians for every German killed by the Partisans. Those executed would come from the village near where an attack took place and sometimes from partisan fighters already being held in captivity.

The German punishments backfired and forced the relationship to become even stronger. Because most resistance fighters were just peasants themselves, the local populations felt a need to provide for their own. One of the larger engagements was the battle for Monte Battaglia (lit. "Battle Mountain"), a mountain top that was a part of the Gothic Line. On September 26, 1944, a joint force of 250 Partisans and three companies of U.S. soldiers from the 88th Infantry Division attacked the hill occupied by elements of the German 290th Grenadier Regiment; the Germans were caught completely by surprise and the attackers managed to capture the hill and then hold it for five days against German reinforcements, securing a path for the Allies to advance throughout Italy.

The resistance in urban areas[edit]

The resistance activities were very different in the cities, where it was not just fighting as in the countryside. Some people merely turned a blind eye to the Germans while others organized, such as the Patriotic Action Squads, and put up propaganda efforts. Other groups, like the Patriotic Action Groups, carried out the military part of the resistance. In the cities, a more expansive support network was devised than the one of that in the country. Networks of safe houses were established to hide weapons and wounded fighters. The people had to be sympathetic to the cause because the use of force to take the home would only lead to an increased amount of betrayal. People were largely in support of the resistance because of the economic hardships, especially the massive inflation in the cities. Pasta tripled and bread had quintupled in price since 1938; hunger became a unifying force between the underground and general population.[11]

Women and the resistance[edit]

Women played a large role in the Italian Resistance. After the war, about 35,000 Italian women were recognised as female partigiane combattente (partisan combatants) and 20,000 as patriote (patriots); they were broken up into these groups based on the activities that they performed. The majority of them were between the ages of 20 and 29. Women were still segregated within the resistance, to some degree. Those attached to brigades were exceedingly rare and, in mountain brigades, were even rarer: when women would ask to join mountain brigades, the answer was almost always no and they were told to just go home and wait for the war to be over. Despite this harsh rejection in mountain brigades, women still served in the resistance with large numbers and had significant influence on the movement.[12]

1944 uprising[edit]

During the summer and early fall of 1944, with Allied forces nearby, the partisan resistance in Italy staged an uprising behind German lines led by the CLNAI. This rebellion led to the establishment of a number of provisional partisan governments throughout the mountainous regions of northern Italy. Ossola was the most important of these, receiving recognition from neutral Switzerland and Allied consulates in Switzerland. According to Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the chief commander of the German occupation forces in Italy, German casualties against Italian partisans in the summer of 1944 alone amounted to 5,000 killed and between 7,000-8,000 missing/"kidnapped" (including deserters), and the same number seriously wounded.[13] By the end of the year, however, German reinforcements and Benito Mussolini's remaining forces crushed the uprising.

The resistance demonstrated that not all Italians agreed with Fascist rule, and proved that they were prepared to fight it despite the cost. The death toll of their struggle amounted to tens of thousands of Italian partisans, civilians and prisoners of war killed.

In their attempts to suppress the resistance, Nazi German and Italian Fascist forces (especially the SS, Gestapo, and paramilitary militias such as Xª MAS and Black Brigades) committed numerous war crimes, including summary executions and indiscriminate but systematic reprisals against civilian population. Resistance captives and suspects were often tortured and raped. Some of the most notorious mass atrocities included the Ardeatine massacre (335 Jewish civilians and political prisoners executed without a trial in a reprisal operation after a resistance bomb attack in Rome), the Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre (about 560 random villagers brutally killed in an anti-partisan operation in the central mountains), and the Marzabotto massacre (about 770 civilians killed in similar circumstances). In all, estimated 15,000 Italian civilians were deliberately killed, including many women and children.[14]

Foreign contribution[edit]

Partisan monument (Arcevia) with Italian and Yugoslav names

Not all members of the Italian resistance were Italians; many foreigners had escaped POW camps or joined guerrilla bands as so-called "military missions". Among them were Yugoslavs, Czechs (deserters from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia army, which was almost entirely sent to Italy for a guard and patrol duty in 1944), Russians, Ukrainians, Dutch, Spaniards, Greeks, Poles, German defectors and deserters disillusioned with National Socialism,[15] and Britons and Americans (ex-prisoners or advisors deployed by the SAS, SOE and OSS). Some later became well-known to the public, such as climber and explorer Bill Tilman, reporter and historian Peter Tompkins, former RAF pilot Count Manfred Beckett Czernin, and architect Oliver Churchill.

Aid networks[edit]

Another task carried out by the Italian resistance was assisting escaping POWs (an estimated 80,000 were interned in Italy until 8 September 1943),[16] who were helped to reach Allied lines or escorted to Switzerland on paths previously used by smugglers. Sometimes fugitives were hidden in safe houses, usually by women (less likely to arouse suspicion) and sometimes several at a time. After the war, Field Marshal Harold Alexander issued a certificate to those who did this at the risk of their lives.

Italian Jews were aided by DELASEM, a secret network extending throughout occupied Italy and including Jews and Gentiles, Roman Catholic clergy and faithful, sympathic police officers, and even some German soldiers. Since Jews were considered "enemy aliens" by the Social Republic regime, they were left with little or nothing to live on, and many were deported to Nazi concentration and extermination camps where about 7,000 of them died. DELASEM contributed to the survival of thousands of Jews by offering food, shelter and donated money. Some of its members would later be designated Righteous Among the Nations.


1945 uprising[edit]

Monument to the fallen at the burial place of partisans killed on April 26, 1945 at Montù Beccaria (2007)

On April 19, 1945, with the renewal of the Allied offensive, the CLN called for an insurrection (the April 25 uprising). Bologna was attacked by partisans on April 19 and was liberated on April 21 by the Italian Co-Belligerent Army and the Polish II Corps under Allied command; Parma and Reggio Emilia were freed on April 24. Turin and Milan were liberated on April 25 through an insurrection following a general strike that commenced two days earlier; over 14,000 German and Fascist troops were captured in Genoa on April 26–27, when General Reinhart Meinhold surrendered to the CLN.[17] Many of the defeated German troops decided to escape from Italy and some partisans units worked out a deal with that the German columns could pass unharmed if they turned over any Italians traveling with them. The forces of German occupation in Italy officially capitulated to the Allies on May 2. Some die-hard Fascists attempted to continue their fight, but got quickly suppressed by the partisans and the Allied forces.

Revenge killings[edit]

The liberation was followed by a score-settling campaign against pro-German collaborators, thousands of whom were rounded up by the vengenful partisans. Controversially, many of those detainees were speedily court martialed, condemned to death and shot, or even simply killed out of hand. Italian Minister of Interior Mario Scelba later put the number of the victims of such executions at 732, but other estimates are often much higher. Partisan leader Ferruccio Parri, who briefly served as Prime Minister after the war in 1945, said thousands were killed.[18]

During the waning hours of the war, the Social Republic head Benito Mussolini, accompanied by Marshal Graziani, headed to Milan to meet with Cardinal Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster. Mussolini was hoping to negotiate a deal, but was only given the option of unconditional surrender. His negotiations were an act of betrayal against the Germans. When confronted about this by Achille Marazza, Mussolini said, "They [the Nazis] have always treated us as slaves. I will now resume my freedom of action." With the city already held by resistance fighters, Mussolini used his connections one last time to secure passage with an escaping German convoy on its way to the Brenner Pass with his mistress Claretta Petacci.[11] On the morning of 27 April 1945, Umberto Lazzaro (nom de guerre 'Partisan Bill'), a partisan with the 52nd Garibaldi Brigade, was checking a column of lorries carrying retreating SS troops at Dongo, Lombardy, near the Swiss border. This was part of an agreement with the partisans that the convoy would be given safe passage if no Italians were concealed among Germans. In one of the trucks, Lazzaro recognized and arrested Mussolini. The task of executing Mussolini was given to a 'Colonel Valerio' (generally identified as either Walter Audisio or Luigi Longo) and the bodies of Mussolini and Petacci were later brought to Milan and hung upside down in the Piazzale Loreto square. Fifteen executed prominent Fascists (including Mussolini, Fernando Mezzasoma, Luigi Gatti, Alessandro Pavolini and Achille Starace) were displayed in the square; this number was significant because the bodies of 15 executed enemies of Mussolini's regime had been displayed in this square the previous year.

Liberation Day[edit]

Smiling older man in a parade, holding a decorated Italian flag
The 64th anniversary of the liberation of Italy in Seregno, Lombardia (25th April 2009)

Since 1949, April 25 is officially celebrated in Italy as Liberation Day, also known as Anniversary of the Resistance. Speaking at the 2014 anniversary, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said: "The values and merits of the Resistance, from the Partisan movement and the soldiers who sided with the fight for liberation to the Italian armed forces, are indelible and beyond any rhetoric of mythicization or any biased denigration. The Resistance, the commitment to reconquer Italy's liberty and independence, was a great civil engine of ideals, but above all it was a people in arms, a courageous mobilization of young and very young citizens who rebelled against foreign power."[19]

See also[edit]

In works of popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ Sanna, Daniele (2005). Da Porta San Paolo a Salò. Gioacchino Solinas comandante antitedesco. AM&D. ISBN 88-86799-86-1. 
  2. ^ Natta, Alessandro (1997). L'altra Resistenza. I militari italiani internati in Germania. Einaudi. ISBN 978-8806143145. 
  3. ^ The Italian Army 1940-45 (3) Osprey Men-at-Arms 353 ISBN 978-1-85532-866-2
  4. ^ Charles T. O'Reilly; Forgotten Battles: Italy's War of Liberation, 1943-1945; Lexington Books; 2001; p.218
  5. ^ Left Catholicism 1943-1955: Catholics and Society in Western Europe at the point of Liberation; edited by Gerd-Rainer Horn & Emmanuel Gerard; Leuven University Press; p.178
  6. ^ a b c d Moseley, Roger (2004). Mussolini: The Last 600 Days of Il Duce. Taylor Trade Publishing. 
  7. ^ Longhi, Silvano (2010). Die Juden und der Widerstand gegen den Faschismus in Italien: 1943 - 1945. Berlin. 
  8. ^ "Italian resistance fighters persevere — This Day in History — 9/6/1944". Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  9. ^ "H-Net Review: Andrea Peto on Women and the Italian Resistance, 1943–45". Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  10. ^ Balbo, Adriano (2005). Quando inglesi arrivare noi tutti morti. Blu Edizioni. ISBN 88-7904-001-4. 
  11. ^ a b c Behan, Tom. The Italian Resistance: Fascists, Guerrillas and the Allies. London: Pluto, 2009. Print.
  12. ^ Slaughter, Jane. Women and the Italian Resistance: 1943-1945. Denver, CO: Arden, 1997. Print.
  13. ^ O'Reilly, Charles (2001). Forgotten Battles: Italy's War of Liberation, 1943-1945. Oxford. 
  14. ^ Gia Marie Amella, Special for CNN. "Hidden archive exposes WWII slaughters -". Retrieved 2014-05-19. 
  15. ^ Incerti, Matteo (2011). Il Bracciale di Sterline - Cento bastardi senza gloria. Una storia di guerra e passioni. Aliberti Editore. ISBN 978-88-7424-766-0. 
  16. ^ "British prisoners of the Second World War and the Korean War". The National Archives. Archived from the original on 19 June 2013. Retrieved 19 June 2013. 
  17. ^ Basil Davidson, Special Operations Europe: Scenes from the Anti-Nazi War (1980), pp. 340/360
  18. ^ See the interview with erruccio Parri, on "Corriere della Sera" 15th November 1997. (in Italian)
  19. ^ "Italy celebrates Liberation Day - Politics -". 1944-06-04. Retrieved 2014-05-19. 

External links[edit]