Italy in WW2 – Yugoslavia
By Miloslav Samardzic
The first phase of the Serb uprising in 1941 in the west of Yugoslavia caused much restructuring and major changes among the Axis forces.
Officially, Germans, Italians and Croats were united against the common enemy, the Serbs. However, since the summer of 1941, in practice things were different. Now you had the Italians and Serbs standing against the Germans and Croats. American historian specializing in Italian documents, H. James Burgwyn, does not use quotation marks when referring to Serbs and Italians as allies. On the other hand, Burgwyn describes relations between Germany and Italy in occupied Yugoslavia as a “cold war.”
”Italians clashed with the Croats over territory. However, their officers and soldiers, seeing the extent of genocide against the Serbs and Jews in the NDH, took these people under their protection in the entire period that followed”, says Milutin Velisavljevic, historian.
Relations worsened with the outbreak of the Serb insurrection.
“In June and July, an uprising started in the Gospic-Gracac-Knin area, in the classic Chetnik tradition. The Italian II Army, which showed more sympathy for the persecuted Serbs than loyalty to its Croatian ally, often chased off Ustasha marauders, and sometimes even killed them. Honoring Casertano’s ‘pietism’ towards the Serbs and Jews, Italian troops won their gratitude, but drew the wrath of Zagreb on themselves.”
”One photo shows Chetniks with a captured and bound Ustasha. To the left of them is a group of Italians that are just observing, apparently not bothered by the sight. We even have photos of Italian soldiers guarding disarmed Ustasha”, says Colonel Dragan Krsmanovic.
In April 1941, Germans and Italians draw a line of demarcation through the bottom third of the NDH. Supposedly a mere formality, following pressure from the II Army Mussolini notified Zagreb on August 13 1941, that Italians would take effective control of the territory south of it.
“Soon after Mussolini’s order, the Ustasha were told to gather their weapons and leave the demilitarized zone. The Serbs breathed a sigh of relief.”
Serbs were given back the property seized by the NDH, and Serb churches were reopened.
“Angry at Mussolini’s change of heart about the military and political authority in the demilitarized zone, Pavelic and his entourage accused Italy of switching sides and fomenting civil war in the country.”
Also angry was Gen. von Horstenau, the German plenipotentiary in Zagreb. He hated the Italians, having fought them in WW1 as an Austrian officer. Also, many of the German officers in Croatia were actually Austrians, and all the senior Croatian officers had formerly served Austria-Hungary. Dalmatia, now occupied by the Italians, was until the end of WW1 an Austrian possession.
All this has led Burgwyn to conclude:
“German generals, in particular those of Austrian origin, still guided by Habsburg memories, opposed the intrusion of the hated Italians into their so-called Greater German space. In Yugoslavia, Italy’s ‘Pact of Steel’ with Germany turned into a cold war.”
”Things had gone so far that Gen. Ambrosio, commander of the Italian II Army, drafted a plan for liberating Croatia of Ustasha and partisans, in alliance with armed Serbs. Hitler obviously opposed this and General Ambrosio was relieved – by being appointed chief of staff of the Land Forces Supreme Command in Rome. This strengthened the II Army’s position, to the benefit of Serbs and Jews in this region. His successor at the head of the II Army, Gen. Mario Roata, will turn out to be a nightmare for Croats and Germans”, says Colonel Dragan Krsmanovic
”The Italian government described this phase of the war in a September 1945 memo as follows: ‘These measures, together with the protection and sympathy of the Italian Army for the Serb Orthodox civilians, enraged the Croats and Germans, but opened the door to friendship between the Italians and the Serbs’.”says Mila Mihajlovic, researcher.
The biggest concession to the Serbs was the Italian establishment of the ‘Anticommunist Volunteer Militia’ in the spring of 1942. In his book “Trieste and its Odyssey,” wartime commander of an Italian division in Dalmatia, Gen. Giovanni Esposito, wrote that the purpose of arming the Serbs was not to protect them from the Communists, but from the Croats. But due to the alliance with Germany, the Italians had to disguise actions against Croats by calling them anti-Communist.
“The Germans were horrified by what they saw. According to von Horstenau, ‘armed Chetniks were parading in every village occupied by Italians…’ In Herzegovina, the Italians even turned over every Croat military column to the Chetniks. Croatia’s ‘independence’ was trampled. Impatient with Roata’s wise initiative, the Germans demanded decisive action against any sort of rebels. But Roata refused to fire on the Chetniks.”
Translation: Nebojsa Malic