From Suspicious Observation to Ambiguous Collaboration: The Allies and Italian Partisans, 1943-1944

Julie Le Gac. Journal of Strategic Studies. Volume 31, Issue 5. October 2008.

During the first months of the Italian Campaign, partisans’ activity was isolated and spasmodic, and Allied support was minimal. In fact, it took the Allies nine months to consider the Italian partisans not so much as a threat as a potential opportunity. This article seeks to explain the Allies’ attitude toward the Italian partisans. Relations among the Allies, the Italian government and the partisans involved a combination of military and political problems. The Allies’ weak support for Italian partisans was in fact the by-product of an overall strategic plan in which means were limited and priorities had naturally to be established in a context of world war. It also revealed their fears: the common suspicion toward irregular fighters, the growing fear of communists and the fear of possible Italian post-war demands.

The armed resistance’s activity subsequent to the surrender to the Allies of Marshal Pietro Badoglio’s government, successor to Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime, on 8 September 1943 played a decisive symbolic role in Italian democracy’s history. However, despite a long tradition of voluntarism since the Risorgimento, the partisans’ first steps were rather timid. The Allied military command did not pay much attention to Italian partisans and its support was minimal. Only in June 1944 did the Allies really begin to encourage the partisan movement. Subsequently, it extended rapidly and took on a truly military character.

The earliest accounts of the Italian resistance were published immediately after the end of the war. They conveyed a romantic image of the movement, and extolled both local deeds of valour and the virtues of starving and unarmed Italian partisans who bravely faced the German occupier. The accounts written in post-war years by the main figures of the resistance, Leo Valiani’s Tutte le strade conducono a Roma or Raffaele Cadorna’s La Riscossa: Dal 25 Luglio alla Liberazione, illustrated this trend. Italian historiography was soon depicting the partisans’ movement as a symbol of Italian moral and political rehabilitation.

Consequently, a fierce debate ensued. On the one hand, the Liberals, led by Benedetto Croce, depicted it as the fulfilment of the Risorgimento. On the other hand, the Marxists magnified the proletariat’s role. Among them, Roberto Battaglia’s Storia della Resistenza in 1953 was pioneering. In response, Renzo de Felice denounced the ‘Myth of the Resistance’ and interpreted the struggle between partisans and fascists from 1943 to 1945 as a civil war. The discussion was highly politicised.

Finally, Claudio Pavone, with his brilliant but controversial Una Guerra civile, defended the thesis of ‘the three wars’ of the Italian resistance. Indeed, he explained that a patriotic, a civil and a class war took place simultaneously in Italy between 1943 and 1945, both in individual and collective consciences. As a consequence, the Italian historiography focused on the internal political debate, did not really question the military efficiency of the Italian resistance and did not show much interest in the relations between Allies and partisans. It merely pointed out and criticised the lack of Allied support.

Conversely, Anglo-American historians such as Norman Kogan and David Stafford were interested in the military cooperation between the Allied armies, secret services and the Italian resistance. Nevertheless, these works generally neglected the early months of the Italian Campaign, a period in which this cooperation remained tentative and stuttering. However, this omission needs to be addressed in order to understand why it took the Allies such a long time to consider Italian partisans less as a threat and more as potential auxiliaries for the liberation of Italy. In fact, this attitude not only raised military and political questions, but also reflected the Allied concept of traditional warfare.

This article will therefore focus its attention on the first steps of the cooperation between Allies and partisans during the early months of the Italian Campaign, from the Allied landings in the south of the peninsula to the withdrawal of seven divisions in summer 1944, an inter-Allied strategic decision which seriously limited Allied ambitions in Italy. As ties between the Allied armies and patriots’ movements were tenuous, the partisans’ role is generally better appraised by the study of German records. In fact, Allied sources are uneven and incomplete. The destruction of the vast proportion of the Special Operations Executive’s files just after the war is of course a considerable loss. Nevertheless, the examination of military reports of the Allied 15th Army Group on the one hand, and diplomatic papers from the British Foreign Office or the Quay d’Orsay on the other, are very instructive. Finally, the personal memoirs of Harold Macmillan and Cordell Hull highlight the general policy guiding Allied diplomacy in Italy.

Relations among the Allies, the Italian government and the partisans were complex and involved a combination of military and political problems. In fact, the Allies’ weak support for Italian partisans was the by-product of overall strategic planning, in a situation in which means were limited and priorities had naturally to be established. And, despite the United States’ prolific achievements in war production, the Allies were already engaged in several theatres and suffered shortages in both weapons and funds. Moreover, to Winston Churchill’s despair, the Italian theatre of operations was not a major priority for either the United States or the Soviet Union. Consequently, the Allies’ reluctance to help Italian partisans was an unfortunate effect of strategic options taken by the three Allied powers.

In this situation, Churchill’s diplomacy, and especially his enduring support for the Badoglio government, was of major importance. Moreover, the Allies’ reluctance to support Italian resistance was also determined by their political concerns. In fact their attitude reflected a traditional concept of honourable warfare, synonymous with a war between regular armies. It also reflected their desire to promote their post-war interests. Consequently, the ambiguous nature of Allied cooperation with Italian partisans was the result of both strategic and political concerns.

The Lengthy Path of Collaboration

During the first months of the Italian Campaign, the collaboration between the Allies and the Italian partisans was infrequent. The Allies observed the partisans’ first steps with mistrust. Only in spring 1944 did the Allies consider the patriots as potential military auxiliaries, and thus strengthen their material support.

After the sudden surrender of Italy on 8 September 1943, the beginnings of the Italian resistance were immediate but rather tentative. In Piedmont, after the debacle of 8 September, units of disbanded soldiers from the Italian Fourth Army attacked German communication lines. On 12 September, the first political band was formed: an Action Party group l’Italia libera which was composed of a few dozen civilians and became the nucleus of the first ‘Justice and Liberty’ division of the Action Party. The first communist ‘Garibaldi’ battalion was organised in north-east Italy around 15 September. At the end of September, Germans reported the first attacks by Italian partisans. These demonstrations of bravery were very often the work of small groups of ill-clad, poorly-equipped men in the hills and mountains of Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, Liguria, northern Veneto and particularly Piedmont. They embodied a romantic ideal of resistance rather than a pre-established and well-defined strategy, as the first partisans’ testimonies illustrated.

In fact, as a result of this spontaneous flowering, Italian partisans were not highly organised or coherent. A British Intelligence report described them as ‘an astonishing mixture’. It added: ‘the only thing all Partisans have in common is the desire to see the Allies beat the Germans in Italy. And even in this their motives vary from democratic idealism to personal ambition.’ Indeed, while the archetypal figure of the resistant corresponded to the young working-class Italian male, in reality, resisters came from all walks of life. Italian armed forces disbanded by the Germans, supplemented by large numbers of men anxious to escape military and labour conscription by the enemy, rubbed shoulders with Allied prisoners of war and members of the lower clergy, as well as women. Moreover, at the beginning, the Italian resistance suffered from a lack of structure and hierarchy. Although sometimes allotted the name of brigade or division, these bands were in fact much smaller and bore no resemblance to regular formations. The same intelligence report noted, not without irony, that:

bands exist of every degree down to gangs of thugs who don a Partisan cloak of respectability to conceal the nakedness of their impartial brigandage, and bands who bury their arms in their back garden and only dig them up and festoon themselves in comic opera uniform when the first Allied troops arrive.

In addition, the efficiency of the partisans’ groups varied according to the quality of their leader and the particular advantages or disadvantages of the locality where they were based. General Raffaele Cadorna, military adviser of the Corps of Freedom Volunteers by appointment of the Rome government, noticed their terrible lack of military experience at all levels even as late as the summer of 1944.

On their side, the Allies were slow to develop a clear policy regarding the Italian resistance movement, although General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of 15th Army Group in Italy, had as early as September 1943 announced his intention of encouraging the Italian people in ‘acts of resistance to the German forces’. To begin with, if the American and British Secret Services were working in concert, their services were not unified in a single organisation, as in Yugoslavia. In practice, on the one hand, British operations in Italy were directed by No. 1 Special Force, created by the Special Operations Executive (SOE). On the other hand, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had a separate chain of command. Both operated under the command of Allied armies in Italy.

First contacts were made by OSS and SOE offices in Berne. At the end of October 1943, A.C. Damiani was sent from Milan to establish permanent contact with the Allies, and on 3 November, Ferruccio Parri, leader of the Action Party in Milan and Leo Valiani met Allen Dulles and John MacCaffery, heads of the OSS and the SOE operations in Switzerland, in Lugano. The idea of a politicised mass movement supporting partisan ‘armies’ was discouraged by the Allied services at this initial meeting. As a result, in the first winter, direct help to the Italian partisans was meagre and slow. In fact, between September 1943 and June 1944, No. 1 Special Force sent only 24 missions into the field, all of them exclusively composed of Italians. The heavy task allotted to these liaison officers who were parachuted behind the lines was to help, organise and train the bands and to act as military advisers, pass intelligence and assess the need for supplies. But they were destitute in terms of the means with which they might accomplish these important missions. During the early months of the campaign, supplies were insignificant: only 200 to 300 tons for both sea and air supply were sent during the winter of 1943-44.

In spring 1944, however, several emerging factors compelled better support of Italian partisans by the Allies. First, the Italian patriots’ movement developed considerably. Whilst they numbered an estimated 9,000 during the winter of 1943-44, that number had risen to 50,000 during summer 1944. Nevertheless, most patriots were still not in contact with Allied fighting forces. In addition, the Allied High Command began to notice and acknowledge the tasks accomplished by Italian patriots and all the services they could offer. As scouts, or guides to patrols, partisans gave scant but valuable aid to the Allied armies. They managed to provide intelligence, indicating bomber and artillery targets as well as information on troop movements, defence positions and minefields. They also carried out numerous small-scale sabotage operations and gave help to escaped Allied prisoners of war. The general strike launched on 1 March 1944 favourably impressed the Allies.

However, only the active part taken by the Italian partisans in the liberation of Florence in August 1944 really convinced the Allied military command that Italian resisters could be helpful auxiliaries. In Florence, they rounded up scattered troops and hunted out snipers, and after the enemy withdrawal, they maintained order and kept public services running. Furthermore, integration gradually took place among the Italian partisans. By early 1944 three major autonomous Committees of National Liberation groupings emerged: the National Committee of Liberation for Northern Italy (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale Alta Italia, CNLAI) in Milan, the Tuscan Committee of National Liberation (Comitato Toscano di Liberazione Nazionale, CTLN) based in Florence and the Central Committee of National Liberation (Comitato Centrale di Liberazione Nazionale, CCLN) based in Rome. Successors of the first committees created in summer 1943, they formed the political arm of the Italian resistance. Hence, they gathered the six anti-fascist parties which refused unanimously to collaborate with the King and the Badoglio government: the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Action Party, the Social Democrats, the Liberal Party and Labour Democracy. Moreover, on 9 June 1944, a supreme headquarters of the Volunteers of Liberty Corps (Corpo Voluntari della libertà, CVL) was established. This military structure, embracing all partisan units associated with the political parties, symbolised their integration.

It was now that the Allied attitude towards Italian partisans started to evolve. The first guidelines for the Italian resistance’s support were laid down in spring 1944 in a general Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ) directive issued on ‘Basic Policy for Special Operations’. The effectiveness of such resistance groups, it pointed out, must depend on the quality of their leadership and the amount of supplies and equipment which were made available to them. Little was done, however, to increase the partisans’ support. On 22 May 1944, a military council was formed in Naples, consisting of representatives of General Alexander and members of the Italian resistance staff, in order to guide the operations of Italian patriots in northern and central Italy by providing them with daily instructions. On the same day, General Alexander released the first official communiqué acknowledging their accomplishments. He even stated that six of the 25 German divisions in Italy had to be diverted to northern regions to fight Italian patriots or to meet Yugoslav partisans on the border of Venezia Giulia. This assertion contrasts with the only reference made by General Alexander in his report on the Italian Campaign submitted to the War Office in 1947:

I should also like to pay tribute to the courage and constancy of many hundreds of brave Italians, of all classes, who at the risk and sometimes forfeit of their lives, sheltered and protected Allied prisoners of war, crashed airmen and liaison officers operating behind the enemy lines. But it was a hard-fought struggle all the way, except for the first two weeks of June, and one which is infinitely to the credit of the troops of all nationalities under my command, for the German is a master in retreat and can seldom be hustled or panicked.

Most certainly, Alexander’s flattering message was motivated by the desire to encourage Italian resistance. In fact, after the liberation of Rome, he addressed the Italian patriots on 6, 7 and 9 June 1944, enjoining them to increase their struggle against the Germans. Consequently, the Allies increased their material support for the Italian resistance. During summer 1944, only occupied Yugoslavia received greater levels of such support. Between June and September 1944, 17 British Missions were dispatched, with the majority of personnel having British nationality, and more than 700 tons of supplies were dropped. The OSS sent 220 tons of supply in June and July. In total, between May 1944 and May 1945, 5,085 net tons of supplies were dropped by the Allied air forces for the partisans in northern Italy.

Through this policy, General Alexander attempted to make the maximum use of partisan groups over the widest possible area, with the objective of causing the greatest interference to the Germans’ general system of communication and forcing them to disperse troops on internal security duties. At the same time, the Allied Military Command endeavoured to recognise officially the Italian partisans. They questioned the mode of enforcement of the 1907 Hague Convention respecting the laws and customs of war to Italian partisans and the Patriots Branch issued certificates of merit. Partisans applying for recognition were investigated by the Joint Allied Committee and these certificates, bearing the signature of General Alexander, allowed their holders to seek employment in the Allied armies. Above all, these certificates symbolised the Allied recognition of partisan action, and established an official status for Italian partisans.

Thus, after six months of suspicious observation, the Allies started to acknowledge that the Italian partisans could provide some useful support in this theatre of operations. This collaboration was, nevertheless, still ambiguous. Indeed, given that it was the logical consequence of strategic choices made by the three main Allied powers both on international and national levels, it remained weakened by Allied political fears.

The Hazards of Allied International Strategy

Relations between the Allies and Italian partisans evolved in accordance with the pitfalls of Allied international strategy. On the one hand, the unfailing British support for the Badoglio government considerably hindered their collaboration. Indeed, Marshal Badoglio always feared an armed overthrow of his authority and thus considered with suspicion the emergence of patriots’ organisations. On the other hand, with the risk of a strategic dead-end on the Italian front from spring 1944 onward, the Allied military command had to acknowledge that patriots could provide useful military support.

The change in the Allies’ attitude towards partisans was the logical consequence of their progressive loss of control over the Italian domestic situation. Indeed, during late summer 1943, Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower negotiated the unconditional surrender of Italy with Marshal Badoglio. Hence, the Allies considered Badoglio and the King as the sole legitimate representatives of the Italian nation. Anti-Fascist parties, however, denounced their compromised attitude during the Fascist regime and thus demanded that the King abdicate and form a democratic government associating the political parties. In November 1943, when the Italian political situation became critical, General Eisenhower recommended a compromise solution, according to which no political change would occur until Rome fell into Allied hands. Of course, Eisenhower made this recommendation believing that the occupation of Rome was imminent. Churchill maintained this view through the winter, notwithstanding the difficulties and disappointments which postponed Allied arrival in Rome. In October, the Prime Minister ordered his diplomats to remain strictly faithful to the political line:

Badoglio is the only solid peg and I do not think either Eisenhower or our Chiefs of Staff would contemplate breaking with him. […] Silly questions in the House of Commons by irresponsible people must not deflect us from a very simple policy, viz., hold on to Badoglio and the King until we are masters of Rome.

Churchill maintained his firm position in spite of the more serious doubts of the Americans as well as of his own subordinates, and also firm French opposition. After the first Anti-Fascist Parties’ Congress held in Bari on 28 and 29 January 1944, where the Committee of National Liberation presented itself as the unique expression of the will of the Nation’s forces and called for the King’s abdication, pressure against Churchill’s diplomacy grew. Free French diplomacy, personified by Ambassador René Massigli in London, could not tolerate the fact that the head of the Italian government was the very person who had signed the Franco-Italian armistice of June 1940. Moreover, Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle feared that such political interference would also be applied in France after the liberation. Above all, US diplomacy, which carried far more weight and was motivated by the approaching presidential elections, showed itself more receptive to Italian claims.

Finally, in Great Britain, public opinion became worried about Allied interference in Italian domestic policy and possible obstacles to democratic expression. Thus, on 22 February 1944, in the House of Commons, the British Prime Minister had to make his position more explicit. He stated that the King and Badoglio ‘were and are the legitimate Government of Italy’ and emphasised their instrumental role: ‘When you have to hold a hot coffee-pot, he explained, it is better not to break off the handle before you are sure that you will get another equally convenient and serviceable.’ Churchill was even ready to threaten the Executive Junta of Liberated Italy, the anti-royalist coalition recently established at the Bari Congress on 28 January 1944, as this letter addressed to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden reveals:

If you think this [message to the Prime Minister from the Executive Junta of Liberated Italy] deserves an answer I could send the following: It had been decided not to make any change in the existing arrangements until Rome has been taken by the Allied armies. If this event were unduly delayed, the matter might be reconsidered in two or three months. Italy has just surrendered unconditionally and all Italians enjoying the protection of the Allies are responsible for assisting in the maintenance of order behind the battlefront. Any breach of order would naturally entail repressive measures against the offenders, and especially against those who lead them on.

However, after the liberation of Rome, Badoglio’s eviction became inevitable and a new coalition but anti-monarchist government was set up, with the president of the Rome National Committee of Liberation, former prime minister Ivanoe Bonomi at its head. Winston Churchill was astounded by the news. With great bitterness, he flared up in a telegram to Eisenhower: ‘I think it is a great disaster that Badoglio should be replaced by this group of aged and hungry politicians. He has been a useful instrument to us.’ He wrote to both Roosevelt and Stalin, on 10 June 1944, to put to them the idea of cancelling the new government’s formation, emphasising that the Italian Advisory Council had not been consulted. This reaction illustrated a surprising blindness to political realities.

However, Churchill explained his firm support for Badoglio’s government by his will to give full priority to the battle in Italy. He was in fact convinced that ‘the formation of a representative government only means that they will stand up to us and we shall have a lot of trouble with them’. His stubbornness also exemplified Churchill’s attachment to royalty. Indeed, according to Cordell Hull, head of the American Department of State, the British leader ‘wanted the royal family kept in power at least temporarily, but with the idea in mind that during this temporary period the King could strengthen his position and render his rule or that of his family permanent’. Furthermore, the lack of electoral legitimacy for Badoglio’s government did not bother the British prime minister. On the contrary, the latter relied upon the fact that the elderly Italian marshal owed the Allies his post. Consequently, Churchill was counting upon Badoglio’s docility and his scrupulous respect for the terms of the first armistice.

In addition, Churchill’s stubbornness also constituted a major brake on the reinforcement of the relations between Allies and Italian partisans. Indeed, the persistent fear of Badoglio’s regime had been an armed overthrow of its authority during or after the end of hostilities in Italy. From the beginning of its existence at Brindisi, therefore, it showed itself hostile to the possession of arms by any group other than the Royal Army and Carabinieri. It had rejected the offer of cooperation given by volunteer formations of the National Front at Bari, a CLN group created through the impetus given by Benedetto Croce and the Action Party; indeed, conversely, it ordered their dissolution on 10 October 1943. In fact, Badoglio did not want to jeopardise the institution of the regular Italian Corps of Liberation, formed as a combat unit in December 1943. On the contrary, with the new role devoted to the political parties in the Government of National Union formed by Badoglio at Salerno on 21 April 1944, and above all with the establishment of the Bonomi government after the Rome liberation, the previous policy of being resolutely suspicious of Italian partisans was abandoned.

Conversely, the Bonomi government urged the Allies to pay more attention to this movement. Indeed, during its first meeting on 23 June 1944, the Italian Council of Ministers proposed to ‘increase the Italian participation in the battle […] to develop, to coordinate and help the patriots’ movement which had already given proof of its heroism, by pinning down appreciable enemy forces and by harassing their movements’. Naturally, the Communist Party was the first to encourage the development of Italian resistance. On 11 July 1944, Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Communist Party, declared in an address to the Roman people: ‘We ask the great Allied nations’ representatives: allow the Italian people to take up arms and fight for their own freedom.’ Consequently, Churchill’s enduring support to Badoglio’s government had considerably dampened Italian patriotic enthusiasm, and thus held up the development of relations between the Allied High Command and the Italian partisans. Only the progressive political emancipation of Italian parties allowed the expansion of this cooperation. The evolving military situation was to inject considerable urgency into the task of expansion.

The evolution of the Anglo-American attitude toward Italian patriots was the consequence of the general strategic choices made by the three Allied powers, and especially of the negotiations for the ‘Second Front’ in Europe. Certainly, greater Allied attention towards Italian partisans was favoured by circumstances. The winter of 1943-44 was hard both for the Allied armies and the partisans. Crossing enemy lines was very difficult and might explain the problem of communication between the Allies and the Italian partisans. Conversely, the spring climate allowed for easier communication. Communication was further facilitated with the launch of the drive on Rome at the end of May and the advance of Allied troops into partisan territory. That said, the evolution of the Allied High Command’s attitude towards Italian patriots was principally due to general strategic considerations. First and foremost, it was the consequence of the general policy established by the Combined Chiefs of Staff at the Quebec Conference in August and confirmed in Cairo in December 1943. This policy had decided, on the one hand, that the forces in the Mediterranean were to contribute to the invasion of France by effecting a landing on her south coast in Provence (Operation ‘Dragoon’), and on the other hand, that support for resistance groups was secondary. Absolute priority was granted to the Combined Bomber Offensive. In addition, the remaining resources available for partisans were sent to support Yugoslav resistance, which was prioritised over Italy.

However, if Italian partisans were the poor relations of the European resistance, the military advance in the Italian theatre of operations compelled the Allied High Command to review its position. Allied attention to the partisan movement was increased by the substantial number of American and French troops transferred to participate in the invasion of southern France in the late summer of 1944. In fact, the withdrawal of seven divisions – three American divisions and the four divisions of the French Expeditionary Corps – constituted a loss of 25 percent of Alexander’s manpower. General Alexander complained afterwards:

My armies, which had just been built up into a strong, flexible and co-ordinated instrument, inspired by victory and conscious of their own superiority were reduced once more to the shifts and improvisations which had marked the previous winter, and were faced again with the problems of overcoming not only the difficulties of the Italian terrain and the stubbornness of the enemy’s resistance, but also the lack of manpower on their own side.

This withdrawal also represented a qualitative loss, as it included the departure of the Moroccan goumiers, the mountain warfare specialists.

From that moment on, the Allies imagined that this loss in strength could be offset somewhat by increased underground activity – all the more so since Italian partisans naturally had a good knowledge of the Apennines and Alps. Furthermore, the Allied High Command in Italy had suffered several strategic failures. Certainly, victory on the Garigliano and at Monte Cassino enabled Rome’s capture on 4 June 1944 and nourished hopes of an easier Allied progression up the peninsula. But General Alexander knew that the extremely rapid withdrawal of German troops through Tuscany to the northern Apennines presaged another fierce struggle to dislodge them from their defensive positions. The experience of Anzio, the perilous and bloody Allied landing from January 1944, taught him how difficult it was to bypass the Germans’ defensive position, and Alexander wanted at all costs to avoid a repetition of the long strategic dead-end of Monte Cassino.

Thus, in a way, after several strategic failures, the Allies’ appeal to the Italian partisans can be viewed as a confession of powerlessness. If, however, the evolution of the military situation imposed a growing collaboration between the Allies and the Italians, the former remained distrustful. The traditional Allied conception of honourable warfare persisted, with the Allied military command naturally suspicious of irregular warfare and seeking to avoid jeopardising the final negotiations for peace.

Pride and Prejudice

With the pride of vanquishers, Allied military leaders could not relinquish their prejudices about both the partisans and the Italian people. Their natural fear of the irregulars’ volatility was intensified by their dread of ‘the communist infusion and invasion in the Balkans and Italy’. Moreover, their attitude showed that they were not ready to forgive Italy’s collaboration with Nazi Germany earlier in the war and to accept it as co-victor. These political and psychological factors combined to explain the persistence of Allied suspicion towards the Italian partisans.

The Allies, like all regular armies, were naturally inclined to emphasise the dangers considered inherent in partisans. For them, the archetypal figure of the franc-tireur (originally French civilian sharpshooters in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71) embodied the difference between chivalric uniformed warfare and guerrilla warfare. And even if, in the Italian theatre of operations, the Allied armies were able to utilise partisans as military auxiliaries, they feared their unconventional character. This suspicion partly explains their reluctance to use them. First, Italian partisans were described by Allied observers as completely unorganised and lacking a reliable hierarchy, and therefore barely controllable. The High Command did distinguish between organised bands which could be of great assistance to the troops and the many groups of young men belonging to no particular organisation and recognising no particular leader. The latter were considered to be ‘of little value to [their] troops’, and constituted ‘a potential menace to law and order if not correctly handed in the first instance’.

The report from the Public Safety Division of the Region II Allied Military Government complained on 21 September 1944 that ‘the whole organisation, if such it could be called, was so loosely knit that Colonel Nicolli could not tell me the name of any one of his brigade commanders. Each brigade and division appeared to operate entirely independent of the others and the action groups seemed to be entirely outside the picture.’ It then added: ‘the control over the Patriots by their commanders was practically negligible’. Furthermore, the Allies suspected Italian partisans to be motivated more by personal interest than by the desire to expel the German occupier. In this regard, the same report asserted:

Finally, there is no doubt that although there are a large number of good, genuine Patriots who have the Allied cause at heart and who have fought well in the interests of their country, there were also very many who have found it convenient to become Patriots at the last moment and who have not fought or done anything in the interests of the Patriots. The officer dealing with the Patriots cannot possibly know all these people and must rely on the advice of the leaders to discriminate between genuine and bogus Patriots.

Hence, mistrust towards Italian partisans was the rule and it fell to them to convince the Allies of their good intentions.

As the Italian partisans could no longer be ignored, the Allies endeavoured to control them – this became one of their main concerns. Indeed, a report from Brigadiers J. F. Combe and E. J. Todhunter suggested in May 1944 that ‘bands of partisans in German occupied Italy must be under direct Allied control’, and Colonel Norman E. Fisher, from the Region Control and Military Section, reported on 18 July that ‘the handling of patriots is a difficult problem which increases in complexity as the advance continues and the patriots increase in numbers and achieve more successes’. Thus, the Allied armies endeavoured to supervise partisans’ activity. They did their best to send them strategic and military instructions and, consequently, strove to provide them with material aid, primarily food and ammunition. In a context of starvation and with a shortage of aircraft with which to supply the partisans, it constituted an onerous task indeed.

Furthermore, as the Allies advanced, they grew increasingly concerned over how to disband partisans who, while welcoming them, were set on retaining their arms. For instance, the French General J. de Goislard de Monsabert, commanding 3rd Algerian Infantry Division, was confronted with this problem. On 10 June 1944, he complained to General Alphonse Juin, commanding the French Expeditionary Corps: ‘In every village conquered by my elements, these partisans claimed the right to keep their arms, representing a threat to my troops’ security.’ He thus issued a memorandum outlining the way to deal with Italian partisans. According to General Juin, ‘as soon as a village [was] occupied, all the arms in the possession of the inhabitants [had] to be deposited into the hands of the Allied Military Government (AMG), or before its arrival, of the nearest carabinieri […] Every armed civilian found afterwards [would] be considered as a franc-tireur‘, and in this regard imprisoned. The Allies were convinced both of the sensitivity of the issue and of the vital necessity of solving it. Indeed, they believed that trouble would automatically occur wherever patriots were left uncontrolled. A report quoted:

The partisans for a considerable period remained semi-organised and battle-excited. They indulged in Fascist hunts, to the discomfort of AMG and security personnel. They ran about in small groups, frightening the civilian population and doing some looting, thus adding to a confused situation.

Thus, the Allies had to convert the patriot from a freebooting fighter or associate of fighters into a law-abiding citizen, channelling his or her patriotic zeal into disciplined and useful activity. In this respect, the issue consisted specifically of making the partisans give up their arms and of finding them employment as a matter of priority. The Allies were deeply conscious of the task’s importance:

After months of guerrilla warfare, it will be hard for patriots to settle down to normal life. To encourage rapid return to their ordinary vocations will be one of the most difficult duties … It should at all times be remembered that an unemployed patriot is not only a disgrace to the community but a menace.

Consequently, the Patriots Branch was formed in July 1944 on the instruction of the Headquarters of Allied Armies in Italy for the purpose of dealing with patriots, partisans and resistance groups of all kinds as soon as territory was liberated by the Allies. This institution was given the task of reconciling the necessity of restoring the rule of law and order with the expression of proper appreciation of the patriots’ efforts and achievements. Hence, it was recommended to all officers dealing with patriots to regard them ‘not as a nuisance but with sympathy and gratitude’. In this regard, in order to disarm the patriots’ bands as soon as possible, the Allied authorities were advised to gain the confidence of partisan leaders, and to show them some consideration. Finally, the fact that partisans were to be handled not by the troops, but by the Allied Military Government in Occupied Territories (AMGOT), emphasised the fact that the Allies still considered the patriots more as a public order concern than as a military matter.

The Italian armed resistance was strongly left-wing in character and, although by no means exclusively communist, the communists here, as elsewhere, played a prominent role. In this regard, Marxist historiography underlines the prominent dimension of class struggle within the Italian resistance. At an early stage, the Allies became aware of the political complexion of the Italian partisan movement. They thus adopted a discriminatory policy toward patriots’ bands, tending to favour non-political bands or bands close to the Royal Army and, conversely, to neglect communist and socialist groups. This policy naturally strengthened the structural difficulties of the Italian resistance. In this regard, Ferrucio Parri complained: ‘Only with difficulty can you have an idea of the work we [had] to do, all the more when we had the feeling that the Allies were trying, instead of helping us to achieve a unified organisation, to split us up.’

In addition, the Allies’ desire to prevent a communist takeover of the Italian resistance determined their strategic use of the patriots. In fact, support was limited to the encouragement of small groups of partisans carrying out specific and limited sabotage and intelligence operations, rather than to the creation and maintenance of partisan armies waging guerrilla warfare, which was what the partisans had in mind. Of course, the prestige granted to these operations was not the same, and neither were their political repercussions. The Allies showed themselves more suspicious toward communist partisans as they feared that they would jeopardise public order. In this regard, on 15 September 1944, Major Drage, from the Patriot Branch, explained: ‘The main reason why arms were not handled is because quite 80 per cent of the Patriots in this area are inclined to communism and I am of the opinion that the demand by the Allied authorities to hand in arms was anticipated.’ Indeed, the Allied authorities feared that these arms could be used ‘against their political opponents after [the Allies had] left the country’. Generally, Britain and the United States feared what Winston Churchill called the ‘Communist infusion and invasion’ in the Balkans and Italy. In this regard, SOE and OSS also endeavoured to safeguard Italy from a future communist takeover. Major Drage expressed his fears to Colonel MacCarthy, his superior in the Patriots Branch of the Allied Control Commission:

We think that when Central and Northern Italy are occupied by the Allies there will be a very strong demand from the Communist Party certainly to be allowed to have a major share in the Government and very possibly to be allowed to undertake the whole civil administration of the area.

The Allies’ fears of a communist takeover in the post-war years, and their more general reluctance to collaborate with Italian partisans during the war itself, were reinforced by their prejudices against the Italian people. Above all in this regard, the Allied High Command placed little value on Italian partisans’ support because it harboured negative assumptions about Italian military capacities. In this regard, Candidus, an Italian-speaking chronicler on the BBC, stated in a broadcast concerning the strikes of March 1944: ‘admiration is all the greater since, let’s say it frankly, abroad the opinion prevailed that the Italians would never have done such a thing […] The idea that they lacked not only physical courage, but also military virtue, had been going a long time.’

Moreover, following the example of Macmillan in his memoirs entitled The Blast of War, the Allies were wondering whether Italy should be considered a friend or an enemy. Although co-belligerency was granted to Italy on 13 October 1943, Italy was not regarded as a ‘friendly co-belligerent’ until September 1944. The Allies early understood the political dimension of the Italian resistance’s action. It was, for the Italians, a symbol of national unity and national will, it constituted the proof of their fight against the Nazis and secured their entry into the United Nations. The Bonomi government therefore announced, following the Cabinet meeting of 15 July, that it considered the partisans an integral part of the Italian war effort. The Italian democratic press, for its part, also emphasised the partisans’ role in the struggle for the liberation of Italy. The Allies, however, were not eager to share with Italians the glory of hard-fought victories. In this regard, Colonel MacCarthy, the head of the Patriots Branch, confirmed one of his subordinates’ severe criticisms of the promotion of Italian resistance through the media. He wrote:

Colonel Mayne feels strongly that the publicity given to patriots on the radio and in the press is exaggerated and that we are making too much fuss about their rehabilitation. […] At some stage it may be wise to eliminate from the newspapers practically all reference to patriots, but this presumably would be when Italy was almost entirely liberated.

In fact, the Allies were not ready to forget the three years and more of war in which Italy had belonged to the Axis side, and they were extremely wary of Italian pretensions at being considered a victor.

In this context, the French position displayed even greater suspicion. The French National Committee of Liberation, unforgiving of the ‘Italian stab in the back’ of June 1940, was particularly reluctant to support Italian resistance. Notably, intent on revenge, it remained singularly deaf to the North African Garibaldian Committee’s numerous pleas to join the Italian resistance. The French National Committee of Liberation always harboured particularly strong doubts about Italian partisans and accused them of copying the French model in order to accentuate ‘the supposed parallelism between the situation in France and in Italy’. René Massigli, the French commissioner of Foreign Affairs, even ordered General Marie Béthouart to ask the Allied High Command ‘not to recognise the new appellation of Italian Interior Forces’.

If political and symbolic considerations motivated their suspicions, Allied governments also feared possible Italian post-war claims. Above all, they did not want to jeopardise final negotiations related to the Italian armistice. In particular, Churchill was anxious about the fate of the Italian Fleet. For its part, as Massigli stated to the Commission of Foreign Affairs on 28 June 1944, France ‘did not wish that Italy be seen to have participated actively in the war of liberation, because it was looking to gain political benefits in doing so: to be able to invoke its sacrifices, and its contribution to the war of liberation, in order to lay claim to membership of the United Nations’.


At the end of summer 1944, the Allied judgment of the Italian resistance was undoubtedly positive. The assessment of the British secret services in this regard was that ‘although the Italian partisans [had] not risen to the great heights of French achievement, the resources [they had] spent on them have yielded a rich return’. This positive retrospective appraisal contrasts with the mistrust clearly expressed in autumn 1943, and thus highlights the evolution of Allied policy. It had nevertheless taken the Allies nine months to consider the Italian partisans as a potential opportunity. It had taken unexpected German resistance, several strategic failures, the withdrawal of a substantial number of American and French troops transferred to Western Europe’s main theatre of operations and consequently the threat of a dead-end in Italy for the Allies to reach out a hand to the partisans. The change in the Allies’ policy was a clear confession of mounting powerlessness. It also reflected Churchill’s misjudgement of the Italian domestic situation.

Moreover, the Allied mistrust of Italian partisans was guided by political fears. The Allied policy was dominated by the idea of keeping control of the situation both within Italy and internationally. In this regard, Italian resistance appeared as a possible threat, both to Italy’s current precarious political stability and to the post-war international balance of power. Consequently, the Allies’ lengthy reluctance to support Italian partisans reminds one that, where necessary, political concerns prevailed over military considerations.

More generally, Allied suspicions towards Italian patriots during World War II illustrate the common mistrust of partisans by regular armies. From the war between France and Prussia in 1870-71 to the two world wars, and above all from colonial warfare to the current conflict in Iraq, the partisan became an archetypal figure of modern warfare. While enemy insurgents are commonly dismissed as ‘terrorists’, even allies were suspected of indiscipline and insubordination. If the conduct of war ‘is too serious to be left to the generals’ in the famous words of Georges Clemenceau, the execution of war remains sufficiently serious not to be abandoned into the hands of uncontrolled citizens bearing arms. The persistent Allied mistrust toward Italian partisans from autumn 1943 to summer 1944 highlights the permanence of this view within modern warfare.