‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice
Updated: Jan 11, 2019
If there is one description of the multi-national and cosmopolitan composition of Allied forces in the Mediterranean theatre during the Second World War, it is ‘complex.’ This comment may seem obvious at first; however, there were not only British and American troops in the theatre but also forces from the British Commonwealth and Empire and ‘free’ forces such as those from France and Poland. Also, in the aftermath of the Italian surrender in September 1943, there were also those of this country’s former regime.
By the terms of the instrument of surrender, units of the Italian navy and air force were to be transferred to the control of Allied forces. Once the Italian government under Marshal Badoglio moved to Brindisi, and the long terms of surrender were signed, the Allies set up a Control Commission to enforce the surrender terms. However, even before the Control Commission was established, General Eisenhower had dispatched a Military Mission to Brindisi to transmit military instructions to Badoglio, collect intelligence, and most importantly, co-ordinate the use of Italian armed forces in the war against German.
It is clear that the use of Italian forces was designed, where possible, to complement Allied combat power in the Mediterranean theatre; however, this came up against a number of challenges that highlight the problem of integrating former enemies into the Allied force structure. Furthermore, as Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, who in 1943 commanded the Mediterranean Air Command, reflected in his wartime memoirs, With Prejudice, that, while he was keen to support the use of the Italian air force, that Service’s needs came secondary to the Allied war effort. Challenges for re-building the Italian air force included administrative, logistical, resource and personnel issue as well as cultural and language difficulties.
The head of the air section of the Military Mission was one Air Commodore Foster, later Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Foster who later commanded the Desert Air Force and the 2nd Tactical Air Force in Germany in the early 1950s. In Foster’s personal papers, held by the Royal Air Force Museum in London, is an interesting record of his service with the Military Mission between September 1943 and March 1944. In this recollection, which is what it is as it is clearly entitled the ‘Personal Record of ACM Sir Robert Foster’ and as such probably written after his retirement in the 1950s, Foster details the work he undertook.
The first challenge recalled by Foster was that of leadership and morale that was linked to the issue of motivation. Italian forces had by the time of surrender been fighting on multiple fronts and, for a variety of reasons, suffered significant defeats. Added to this, as Foster recollected, was the fact that the Italian’s were being asked to fight with their former enemies against their former allies. Furthermore, motivation was considered to be challenging because of conditions in Italy for the civilian population and the separation of personnel from their families. This was an outcome of the character of the Italian campaign and German failure to withdraw from the peninsula. That Foster identified this as his first requirement was hardly out of character. It was recognised by British forces that the generation of combat power was related to good leadership, command and morale. As such, managing issues such attitude, culture, identity and loyalties were essential to ensure the provision of an effective force. As Foster wrote:
It was perfectly clear […] that the first step must be to establish a sense of purpose and to find officers with sound qualities of leadership, with good operational experience, and with the basic enthusiasm which would make their Air Force an efficient and useful addition to the allied war effort.
Foster was aided in attempting to implement his first step by recognising the need to gain support from Badoglio’s government and to help with that he appointed Squadron Leader Roger Francis who spoke Italian and was a ‘firm Italophile.’
Importantly, it was agreed that Italian units would be grouped to maintain identity, though the Allies would provide stores and logistical support and eventually re-equipment of units. Linked to this were administrative challenges concerning issues such as an operational headquarters to control units that not only served the purpose of Italians but also fitted with existing Allied arrangements. Added to this was the need to communicate to Allied air commanders that the addition of Italian units would be of benefit to the war effort. Foster recollected the ‘excellent service’ of his Italian staff officers fondly and that ‘at heart, the Italian Air Force air crew were not dissimilar to ours.’
Ultimately, without further research, it is hard to assess the effectiveness of Foster’s effort to rebuild the Italian air force on the Allied war effort. At a simple level, were the outcomes achieved greater than the effort expended? One thing is certain, while an attempt was made to utilise the Italian air force it was hampered by the fact that the Allies secured only some 300 aircraft and that many continued to be used by forces that remained loyal to the regime in Northern Italy. This led to Italian units being used by the Balkan Air Force and re-equipped with Allied types. Nevertheless, perhaps the key outcome of this effort was that it laid the foundation for the post-Second World War Italian air force, as such, while the Service might not have been militarily effective in reinforcing Allied combat power, it served a political purpose in the longer term.
This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the effort to rebuild and utilise Italian forces after the 1943 surrender; however, while it is dangerous to draw historical parallels, the experience of Italian forces after 1943 begs the question of the purpose of rebuilding forces of defeated enemies and the challenges inherent in that process. It is evident from Foster’s recollection that while there were technical and logistical challenges, the key to his ‘success’ was the need to recognise the problem of working with the Italians to ensure that they felt part of the Allied team. A need to maintain some form of identity was paramount to Foster’s work and the subsequent integration of Italian forces who subsequently felt valued as they were able to ‘prove [their] worth under the new circumstances.’
This post first appeared at From Balloons to Drones.
Dr Ross Mahoney is the Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a historian of war with research interests in air power, command and leadership, military transformation, military culture and the history of professional military education, and is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (BA (Hons) and PGCE) and. He tweets at @AirPowerHistory.