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Festung Europa For Italy’s Honour
Per l’onore d’Italia

(motto of National Republican Army)

Part One

By Francesco Mioni and Nicolò Da Lio

The recent article about Italian Liberation Corps described history and battles of Italian forces fighting with the Allies during the last part of WWII. In the same period, on the opposite side of no man’s land, were drawn other Italian troops: the divisions of the new established Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic, RSI in short) Army. This article describes how to field a company of the RSI force. Other Late War Italian formations, such as X Mas or Nembo Divisions, will be dealt with in separate articles.

Historical Background

The Allied landings in Sicily (July 10th, 1943) were the first step in the invasion of Italy. In 1943 criticism of Mussolini’s conduct of the war mounted, particularly in the army and Monarchist circles. The Italian government was fed up with the war and the invasion of Sicily threw it into crisis and the Italian Fascist leaders opposed to Mussolini began to agitate for his removal. While Mussolini and Hitler met on July 19 in Northern Italy, US warplanes bombed Rome and killed 2000 people. On July 25, King Vittorio Emanuele III had Il Duce arrested and replaced him with Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the Army Chief of Staff. 

Badoglio immediately started secret negotiations with the Allies to take Italy out of the war. Elated, the Allies wrongly concluded that Italy would be an easy conquest. Plans were made to drop the 82nd Airborne on Rome. Lieutenant General Maxwell D. Taylor, the 82nd Airborne Artillery officer, secretly parachuted into Rome to negotiate with the Italian government in September. The new Italian government kept him waiting while he avoided capture by German Gestapo agents. Taylor helped the new government conclude an armistice with the Allies on September 3. On September 8th, 1943, while the Eighth Army landed in Southern Italy, the deal was announced by Badoglio, who then fled Rome for the Allied lines with the King and his family, leaving a good majority of Italian soldiers without any firm leadership or directions of what to do next. 

Operation Achse

When Mussolini fell on 25 July 1943 Hitler was greatly disturbed over the fate of his fellow dictator and wanted to take immediate action by staging a coup d’état with German troops. 

He wanted to arrest Badoglio and the King, liberate Mussolini, and re-establish the fascist regime under German protection. Elements of the 2nd Parachute Division were at once flown to Rome to bolster German strength. But caution, ignorance of Mussolini’s whereabouts, and the apparent willingness of the Italians to maintain the alliance with Germany restrained Hitler. However, the idea was not dropped and General Kurt Student was charged with preparing the overthrow of Badoglio’s government with the XI Air Corps, a parachute unit, now dispatched to Italy. At the same time Otto Skorzeny, a daredevil SS officer, received the mission of locating and liberating Mussolini. Instead of a sudden and dramatic move, Hitler decided to occupy Italy unobtrusively and gradually by increasing the number of German divisions in the country, if possible in agreement with Comando Supremo.

On 1 August 1943 OKW issued a new and revised version of the plan to take over Italy. Assigned the code name ACHSE (Axis), the plan recognized the danger to German troops in Italy that would come about from Italian defection and Allied landings on the Italian mainland.

An Italian infantryman

There were as yet no strong German forces in northern Italy and Rommel’s headquarters was still in Munich. German forces in southern and central Italy and on Sicily had been increased to eight divisions. Of these, three divisions and part of a fourth were fighting on Sicily, one division was located on Sardinia, and an SS brigade occupied Corsica. At this time it was believed that Italian “treachery” could isolate all the German forces in southern and central Italy as well as those fighting on Sicily.

The directive still envisioned Kesselring directing a withdrawal to the Rome area, which was to be held until all troops had escaped from the south and from Sardinia. The Germans were to disarm the Italian Army in the process and to treat evacuated territory as hostile country. Rommel was to secure and occupy all the Alpine and Apennine passes as well as the major northern ports. The Italian Army was to be disarmed and the region of northern Italy pacified with the help of fascist organizations. Other sections contained instructions to the Commander-in-Chief-Southeast for taking over the defence of the Balkans and disarming Italian troops in that region.

On 8 September Kesselring was faced with the triple task of opposing the Allied armies, establishing German forces on the mainland, and rendering the Italian armed forces ineffective. In this mission he was aided by the lack of Italian fighting spirit and poor planning on the part of Comando Supremo. In the Tenth Army sector Italian troops all but disappeared overnight; near Rome Kesselring needed only two days to convince the five Italian divisions located there to go home; in the north Rommel methodically disarmed and dissolved all Italian Army units. Italy had ceased to be an ally, but she also ceased to be a threat. Unhampered by the previously necessary regard for the sensitivity of Comando Supremo and the Italian Government, the Germans proceeded to conduct the defence of Italy with no considerations except their own self-interest.

Operation Achse was a success: 48 hours after the armistice, 14 German divisions disarmed 33 Italian divisions and the Italian Army was largely disbanded. On 12 September 1943, after weeks of research, the German intelligence services managed to locate where Mussolini was being held as a prisoner and launched a covert operation to rescue him. 

The coup de main, organized and performed by German Parachutists, was a success and, two days later, a worn-out Duce arrived at Rastenburg where he found several of his hard-line fascist generals waiting. After strong pressure from Hitler, Mussolini accepted a new political role as the head of the new Italian Fascist Government, and on September 23rd, 1943, the “Repubblica Sociale Italiana” (in short RSI) was founded with its capital located at Salò, a small village on Lake Garda. RSI Flag
X MAS Troops 1944

Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano (National Republican Army)

After the Italian armistice, a virtual civil war broke out within the forces of the defunct Italian Armies between those who continued support of the Axis cause and those joining the Allies. A few units were able to stand together; while some went over to the Allies, such as the garrison of Sardinia, while others went over to the Germans. The great majority of the Italian army, left without orders, was disbanded. The Germans killed thousands of soldiers in attempts to quell any resistance and attempts by the former Axis troops to join the Allies or the partisans; and others were disarmed, sent to Germany and interned in work camps.

An inventory done by Marshal Jodl showed that Operation Student led to confiscation from Italian troops of 1,255,660 rifles, 38,383 machine guns, 9,986 artillery pieces, 15,500 vehicles, 6,760 mules and horses. Approximately 60,000 Italian soldiers were interned in German camps. 

After the RSI formation, Mussolini obtained out of Hitler the re-establishment of Italian Armed Forces, under the guide of General Rodolfo Graziani. After many summits between Italian and German authorities, the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano was founded on 27th October 1943. 


The original protocol, signed in Rastenburg on 16 October, provided that:

a) OKW should have equipped, armed and trained four Italian divisions (one alpine and three infantry) for a total of 52,000 men. The main part of these to be volunteers from prison camps in Germany.
Becasue of this the German instructors’ tasks should have been easier becasue the officers, NCOs, and soldiers were veterans of three years of war. After four months, in early June 1944, the first divisions were to be ready to reach the Italian front, while another four were to have started training, returning to Italy by the end of that year;

RSI soldier with mod 30 MG

b) A ninth armoured division was to be formed in Wunsdorf, at the German Motorized Military School. Completely equipped with German tanks, it was to have been composed of personnel coming from Italian armoured and motorized divisions;

c) The Italian High Command was to have organized about 30,000 men to form alpine artillery, engineers and anti-aircraft companies to be put at the disposal of German divisions operating in Italy, mainly for anti-aircraft and coastal defence.

It was very soon clear that German promises wouldn’t be carried out. Field-Marshal Keitel, OKW commandant, and the other German generals didn’t trust the Italian prisoners, defined derisively as Badogliotruppen, viewing them as untrustworthy and unwilling. 

Only about 13,100 (3,275 men per division) left the  prison camps as volunteers. The RSI government had to resort to conscription to complete the numbers necessary for the four planned divisions.

The four divisions

The conscription called on the classes of 1925 and 1924. The RSI authorities were amazed by the enthusiastic response during the first few weeks. When it was known that the Italian divisions were going to be trained in Germany quite a lot of them, thinking that the call up was just an excuse to deport them, preferred to desert with many joining the partisans in the mountains. The training location was imposed by OKW, officially to offer the well-organised German training facilities, where large-scale manoeuvres and exercises could take place. In fact Field-Marshal Keitel didn’t want the four divisions, well trained and equipped, but potentially unfaithful, detached in the immediate rear of Kesserling’s front-line troops.

San Marco Marine Division troops
RSI soldier with a German
At the beginning of 1944 the first troop trains, guarded by German armed sentries, left Italy to carry to Germany the recruits of the first four divisions of the new RSI Army:

- 1st (later 4th) Alpini Division "Monterosa"

- 2nd Infantry Division "Littorio"

- 3rd Naval Infantry Division "San Marco"

- 4th (later 1st) Bersaglieri Division "Italia"

The human composition of the divisions was very heterogeneous. There were hard fascists, veterans of the Royal Army, prisoners who volunteered only to come back to Italy, or just to leave the lagers, 19 year old conscripts, captured absentees and even mopped up and forgiven partisans. Life in the training camps was miserable, with bare survival meals and incredibly hard physical and tactical training, but the end product was four first-class divisions with very high morale and operational skills, eager to fight against the Allies.

Unfortunately, the Germans did not trust the Italians any more by this time, and when the divisions returned to Italy they were assigned to counter-insurgency and coastal-defence operations. The morale of the soldiers was quickly shattered, and their operational skill diminished. Soon the desertion rate was very high.

Besides garrison and anti-partisan activity, the RSI army fought on the north-east frontier against the Yugoslavian partisans (who by 1944 were already organized as a regular army) that were advancing against Trieste,
Udine and Venice in Italy.
RSI Artillery armed with the 75/27 Mod 06 gun

The only large offensive operation of the RSI Army against the Allies was a regimental-size tactical counterattack in the Appennines in the Winter of 1944 against Brazilian troops. The operation was a success, and the RSI troops proved themselves very skilled and aggressive in this otherwise brief encounter. 

The end of April 1945 saw RSI Army troops retreating northward before the Allied troops spreading into Padana plain, after breaking the Gothic Line. With the final and total Axis surrender, the four divisions ceased any military operations and surrendered to advancing US units or to the few "legitimate" partisan combat outfits in the region. 

RSI Monterosa...
RSI Littorio...
RSI San Marco... RSI Italia...
RSI Briefing...

Last Updated On Tuesday, June 19, 2007 by Wayne at Battlefront