The armistice

The 3rd September 1943 admiral De Courten, that was commander in chief of Italian Navy from July 25th, was summoned by Badoglio, the Government's chief and by general Ambrosio, chief of the High Command, along with the commanders in chief of the Army and the air Force, for being informed that there were in course negotiations of armistice with the Allies. Instead, just that day, the armistice (Short Military Armistice) was been signed in Cassibile, Sicily, by the Italian plenipotentiary general Castellano, for Italians, and by the American general Smith, for Allies. The decision to not render public the armistice, obviously also approved by the King, was dictated by two reasons: the first one was not to provoke reactions by part of the Germans, that were already in alarm, and in the second place there was a top-secret obligation convened with the Allies. Therefore the version of the "negotiations in course" was maintained till the noon of the 6th September, date in which was delivered to admiral De Courten a cover entitled "Memorandum nº 1" that specified the countermeasures to take in case of probable hostile German actions, even if it was not explained why it had to be such hostilities. It was permitted only to advice admiral Sansonetti, under-officer chief of High Command and to communicate orally to the other admirals the most classified instructions that the memorandum contained; it was made by convening to Rome, for the day after, one restricted reunion of admirals.

In the evening of the same 6th September admiral De Courten was then convened by Ambrosio, that delivered to him another memorandum, signed "Dick" (it was the last name of the chief of admiral Cunningham's general staff, but later on De Courten said that it had not understood it) in which were indicated the Allied ports where the Italian ships had to surrender in armistice case. Ambrosio said that the document was not too important, because it had been already asked to the Allies to concentrate the fleet in La Maddalena, that it was a Sardinian port, and that they would surely have granted it; in such occasion, De Courten was informed that the armistice would have been declared between the 10th and the 15th September, probably the 12th, but surely not before the 10th.

It seems that the High Italian Command did not become account, in those days, of the determining fact that Italy had lost the war and so the armistice conditions could be placed only by one of the two adversaries: the winner.

Let us make a step behind: what had signed Castellano? In a few words he signed a surrender without conditions. Above all the Italian government had to comply with four obligations, at the moment of the armistice declaration:

  1. To stop the hostilities of its Armed Forces.
  2. To transfer its ships and airplanes in the places designated by the Allies.
  3. Do not give every type of aid to the Germans.
  4. To use all the available forces for respecting the armistice conditions.

These conditions were the maximum that the Allies could grant, in that moment, to Badoglio and the King: in fact them, above all the clause 4, did not relegate Italy in a passive status of occupied nation but they promoted a role of active collaboration, and it throw the bases of a future of co-operation in war. In fact the Allies had become aware of the changed Italian political situation, from the Mussolini's fall, and hoped that these conditions could make easier the development of the operations.

But let us return to the 7th September morning: De Courten went to the Supreme command headquarters in order to deliver a memorandum of alternative conditions to the memorandum "Dick", but he did not find Ambrosio because, inconceivably, it had gone to Turin to see his family. The afternoon of the 7th had place in Rome the reunion of the admirals, presided by De Courten and Sansonetti, always on alert for a possible "German surprise attack". Nobody of the two spoke about armistice negotiations or about memorandum "Dick". The dance of the misunderstandings continued.

The evening of the 7th September De Courten met the German commander Kesserling and here he repeated that the Italian fleet was ready to leave for a last suicide mission against the Allies, already promised by De Courten to Doenitz in August, 15th and re-promised by Ambrosio to Kesserling in August, 21st; the bluff was carried on.