NEWSLETTER NO. 344
Our Deputy Chairman, Bill Brady, gave the DDH talk on The Rescue and Fall of Mussolini. Using his usual wide array of slides and computer graphics on multiple screens, Bill started his story of the enigmatic Italian dictator Mussolini by quoting critical comments by Hitler and Goebels (his allies) and then complimentary comments by both Churchill and Ghandi (his opponents) and used that as a base to find the "real" Mussolini. He described him as a self styled modern Caesar, who when dazzled by the ease of German victories in 1940, took his ill equipped country to war in the belief that the allies were already defeated. He concentrated on gaining victories and territory in East Africa, Egypt and Greece, but after a series of heavy defeats he was forced to accept German control of his armies. A series of heavy defeats, and later his decisions to send Italian troops to the eastern front combined with his declaration of war on the USA, made both Mussolini and the war unpopular in Italy. Mussolini ignored this change of popularity for, as our speaker stated, "his ego was greater than his judgement".
Just when they expected victory in 1943, the war turned against the Axis powers on all fronts. Italian forces were floundering and with their casualties growing substantially the Italian people became fiercely anti-German and anti Mussolini. Now a shadow of his former self, Mussolini was convinced that the allies would invade Italy, but all his requests to Hitler for action to help Italy in their predicament were ignored. The allies landed in Sicily in July 1943, and to save Italy from further ruin, King Victor Emmanuel dismissed Mussolini and Marshall Badoglio was declared Head of State. This decision took the Germans by surprise, but they responded quickly and firmly by reinforcing their armies in Italy. The Italian government dithered; fearing German reprisals they issued a proclamation that Italy would continue on the side of Germany but 6 weeks later, after deciding to surrender to the allies, they were forced to flee south and Italy found itself in the worst of all worlds, that of being occupied by opposing armies fighting a vicious war.
During this time Mussolini was moved many times to frustrate any German attempts to rescue him, but an intercepted radio message gave his latest hiding place and under personal orders from Hitler, Captain Otto Skorzeny of the recently formed SS Commando Group entered to centre stage. To rescue Mussolini from a mountain top ski resort hotel, Skorzeny chose a glider assault as the only realistic option and on 12 September 1944, 90 glider borne commandos crash-landed within 15 metres of the hotel and with an Italian general giving orders that confused the defenders the hotel was successfully stormed. The released Mussolini was flown off the mountaintop in a Storch aircraft and eventually taken to Hitler's HQ at Rastenburg and then back to Italy and a return to power in a puppet state in northern Italy. He extracted his revenge, including the execution of his son-in-law, but his time was short. In April 1945, with the Axis armies collapsing and allied victory imminent, Mussolini attempted to flee to Spain with his mistress. Communist partisans halted the convoy at a roadblock, recognised Mussolini, and after a brief holding spell, they were both shot at the side of the road. Irate crowds gathered round the corpses and mutilated them. Bill Brady ended his fascinating and highly descriptive talk by comparing the 1945 end of Mussolini and a life driven by the need for personal glory, with that of his rescuer, Otto Skorzeny, who died a multi-millionaire in Madrid in 1975.
The main talk of the evening, My Role as a Fighter Pilot at Arnhem, was given by General Albie Gotze and was one of our series of "I was there" talks. This provided for a remarkable evening, as our speaker not only went into considerable detail on the battle itself, but also added the personal touch at relevant points, as he explained his role as one of the fighter pilot escorts to the ground troops. To start we heard how events evolved from the break through at Falaise; the use of Eisenhower's broad front and the related support problems, the lack of a decisive supreme commander, the impact of British failure to take the Beveland Peninsular, the thrusting and conflicting demands of Montgomery and Patton and much more - all of which led to acceptance of Montgomery's plan for an airborne attack to secure a gateway into Germany and the Ruhr, codenamed Market Garden. The ever careful Montgomery shook his colleagues by suggesting that his plan, resulting in The Battle of Arnhem, should take place "immediately" but the briefing to his senior colleagues led to one of the most famous comments of the war when Lt. Gen Browning pointed to Arnhem bridge on the map and said "I think we might be going a bridge too far". It proved to be a correct judgement.
The plan was monumental with just 7 days to launch the first ever fully equipped airborne force to drop deep behind enemy lines in daylight, in joint operation with ground troops, and using 1187 troop carriers, 478 gliders, 5000 aircraft of all types to deploy a total of 35, 000 men. The aim was to take all identified bridges and to hold open a 64-mile wide corridor for the army advance through Germany. How this was all planned was given in detail, including specific targets by unit, air support operations, weather, security, the choice of landing and drop zones and most controversial of all - the use (and non-use) of available intelligence. Most fascinating of all was the role of our speaker; after a tour on Hurricanes he volunteered for ops on Typhoons and joined 137 Squadron on 28 August 1944. His role and those of his pilot colleagues both before and during the 9 days of the battle (when 35 pilots were killed) made his description of the battle even more fascinating than usual.
The battle started before dawn on 17 September 1944, when 1400 bombers supported by over 1500 fighter escorts, bombed German positions in preparation for the airborne armada to arrive at their drop zones around 1100 hours. That was a sight our speaker saw from the air and he said about it "my feelings at the time were of awe and wonder, I will never forget it". But misfortune followed, with the recent arrival of the 9th and 11th Panzer Divisions in the area, the operational plans for Market Garden being found on the body of a USA officer - plans that were passed immediately to the German high command - and most of the 1st British Airborne Division radio equipment being lost. This last misfortune was the reason for the almost total loss of communication between this unit and the approaching ground troops. With the airborne drop underway, XXX Corps started their ground attack into Holland, with Albie Gotze and his co-pilots giving close air support, but despite making initial progress they were clearly behind schedule by the end of day 2. The 1st Airborne were also losing their initiative, a problem compounded by their CO - General Urquhart - losing contact with his HQ for 36 hours at a time when the Dutch underground were reporting that the Germans were winning the battle at Arnhem Bridge. With the Germans having full knowledge of their plans, the signs were already ominous for the main attacking forces. Several sorties being repulsed and although the north end of the bridge was secured by 0600 on 18 September, all the troops in the action were surrounded. This put the emphasis on the bridge at Nijmegan, where the Germans were waiting, after the bridge at Zon was blown up be the Germans.
From that confused start to the battle, Albie Gotze then took us through the detail of the battle as it unfolded on a day-by-day basis, giving equal emphasis to the 4 main airborne units - 1st British, 82nd American, 101st American and 1st Polish - and the ground troops of the 2nd Army - VII, XXX, and XII Corps. He added to this with the roles played by air support, including the way that B24 Liberators flew in supplies through heavy flak, and how the Typhoons, flying at anything from 500 to 50 feet attempted to neutralise that flak - all explained with personal knowledge. The success or otherwise of taking the target bridges was described, together with the determined attempt by German forces to stop the advance of the ground troops and the capture of the bridges by the airborne troops. The battle ran from 17 - 26 September, 9 days of fierce fighting and heavy casualties that did not achieve the anticipated objectives, and eventually the airborne troops, who never did receive the timely help from ground forces, had to withdraw and this they did. Our speaker then summarised the reasons for failure, including: airborne troops landing too far from their objectives, the bad luck of the late arrival of Panzer troops, the speed of German response aided by knowledge of the allies plans, the impact of the worsening weather, the communications failure, the inability of the ground forces to advance within the planned time and Eisenhower's reluctance to channel all his resources to this hugely important operation. Although it was a failure, it was an epic and heroic battle for all the men who fought at Arnhem on both sides. As General Albie Gotze stated, "It was a victory for the human spirit, it has a special quality, a flavour almost of mystique". The talk we received more than matched the quality of the battle itself.
Professor Philip Everitt gave a warm vote of thanks to both speakers, and for providing a full audience with a memorable evening.
THE SOCIETY'S NEXT MEETING:
PLEASE NOTE THAT THE APRIL MEETING WILL BE HELD ON THE THIRD THURSDAY IN APRIL - 15 APRIL - DUE TO THE NORMAL SECOND THURSDAY FALLING THE DAY BEFORE GOOD FRIDAY, AND EASTER.
The main talk in April will be given by fellow member ROBIN SMITH and will be entitled THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR - FROM THE WILDERNESS TO APPOMATTOX. The talk will cover the last year of the U.S. Civil War. The 1864 campaign opened in May with the battle of the Wilderness as the Union army pushed Robert E. Lee's Confederate forces southwards. Invested and besieged around Richmond and Petersburg they held out through the winter. City Point, the Union supply base, became the busiest port in America and was visited by President Abraham Lincoln in March 1865. Finally overwhelming the Petersburg defences, the Confederate army was pursued westwards until Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on 9th April 1865. The talk will be illustrated with pictures and maps to illustrate this fascinating episode of a war that the Society has not heard much of until now.
The DDH will be given by a well-known local military personality, JOHN GOODRICH. He is a highly regarded speaker on military matters and will address us on MILITARY TRADITIONS.
This has all the makings of a special; meeting on the night of our AGM. Don't miss it!!!
Subscriptions for 2004 are now past due. Most KZN members have already paid, and grateful thanks to all those who have done so. If it has slipped the mind of remaining members, please send you subscription ASAP to Joan Marsh in Johannesburg, or directly into the Society account at FNB Bank, Brumalake Branch, A/c 50391928346, Branch code, 25-66-55, Name South African Military History Society
The AGM will be held at the April meeting and if any member wants to stand for the committee or would like to recommend a member who can add value to our deliberations, please contact Dr. INGRID MACHIN on 031-201-3983 to get the name submitted.
Details of the BATTLEFIELD TOUR - 2004 were sent out with the last newsletter. We are aiming to have a maximum of 70 members and friends attending, as more than that makes the organisation very difficult. We already have 56 members booked, so we are nearly full. If any member wants the details resent, please contact PAUL KILMARTIN, on 031-561-2905 or 082-449-7227.
Your committee have requested that all members send contact details (particularly e-mail addresses) and the requested format was sent out with the last newsletter. We have had a good response so far, but would ask all members who have yet to do so, to please forward their details to Dr. INGRID MACHIN, ON 031-201-3983, so that we can complete our member's database for ease of future contact.
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001