World War II, The Surrender of the Italian Army

World War II, The Surrender of the Italian Army


The Allied victory in Italy, beginning with the surrender of the Italian government in 1943 and continuing through the conclusion of the war in Europe two years later, was as much a triumph of intelligence, psychological warfare, and special operations as it was a victory of military might. Among the players in this undertaking were the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), various units engaged in psychological warfare, and the Italian partisans who fought to regain control of their country.

Badoglio's capitulation. By 1943, popular sentiment had long since turned against the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, but the heavy presence of German troops made the Italians virtual prisoners to the Axis. Faced with this quandary, Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio established clandestine communications with the Allies by diplomatic channels. He thus paved the way for the overthrow of Mussolini on July 25, after which the dictator was arrested. The Allies landed at the beginning of September.

The fact that the fighting in Italy would last until the conclusion of the war—the longest single campaign waged by British and American forces—serves to indicate that matters did not go smoothly even after Badoglio's surrender. A major factor in this was the Germans' resolve to hold on to the northern portion of the country. There, Mussolini (rescued in a daring German airborne raid on September 12) ruled a puppet government, but the real power lay in the hands of the Nazis.

The Allied effort. To counter the Nazis' hold on northern Italy, the Allies undertook a number of operations to support the military forces. The latter consisted of the 15th Army Group, commanded by Britain's General Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander, which included General Bernard Montgomery's British 8th Army, General George S. Patton's U.S. 7th Army, and Lieutenant General Mark C. Clark's 5th U.S. Army. Patton and Montgomery led Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily in June 1943, while Clark and Montgomery made the first assault on the Italian peninsula three months later.

Assisting this military effort were psychological warfare units of the U.S. 5th Army and the British 8th Army. Klaus Mann, a German American with the 5th Army, designed leaflets intended for the German soldiers. At the same time, OSS was heavily involved behind the scenes. Leading OSS operations was Max Corvo, a Sicilian American who, as a young army private in 1942, had taken a three-day pass to Washington, D.C., and presented a plan for the subversion in Sicily. He soon received a transfer to OSS, and from 1943 to early 1945, Corvo, still in his midtwenties, ran OSS Italian operations.

At the same time, the Office of Naval Intelligence undertook its own efforts, including one of the most famous (or infamous) aspects of the covert war in Italy: the release of Mafia chieftain "Lucky" Luciano from a Stateside prison to conduct advance work in Sicily. This effectively shut out Corvo who, knowing the Mafia well from his childhood, refused to work with gangsters. Corvo would later be replaced by James Jesus Angleton, destined to become a major figure in the postwar Central Intelligence Agency. Angleton, a hardline anti-Communist even then, wished to avoid dealing with the Left—a difficult task in a country that had the largest Communist Party of any non-Communist country in Europe. Instead, Angleton ended up working with Masons, syndicalists (non-Communist leftists associated with anarchism), and disaffected Fascists.

The partisans. In the shadow war against the Germans, few elements did as much to undermine Nazi power as the Italian partisans, who worked closely with the OSS and the SOE. These Italian irregulars tied up seven German divisions, and forced two of these to surrender, sapping German strength in Italy. With the help of OSS, partisans infiltrated German lines via submarine. Partisan agents such as Mino Farneti set up secret radio communications and arranged parachute drops of weapons to enable a counterattack by partisan forces in the north.

Another partisan aided the escape of five Allied generals who had been captured by the Nazis. In September 1944, a team led by this same operative intercepted and shot a German major traveling by sidecar. In his briefcase they found detailed plans of the Germans' defenses for the eastern half of the Gothic Line. Another partisan smuggled a set of plans for the western half in the sole of his boots, and delivered these to OSS operatives in Siena. Thanks to these plans, the Allied force broke through the Gothic Line on September 17.



Chalou, George C. The Secrets of War: The Office of Strategic Services in World War II. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992.

Corvo, Max. The O.S.S. in Italy, 1942–1945: A Personal Memoir. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Dulles, Allen. The Secret Surrender. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.


Prosser, Frank, and Herb Friedman. "Organization of the United States Propaganda Effort during World War II." Psychological Warfare and Aerial Propaganda Leaflets. < > (April 7, 2003).

Tomkins, Peter. "The OSS and Italian Partisans in World War II." Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency. < > (April 7, 2003).


OSS (United States Office of Strategic Services)
Propaganda, Uses and Psychology
SOE (Special Operations Executive)
World War II

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