Sicily in the Second World War The Prelude

The rise of Italy and the road to war in 1940

The period from 1861 until 1940 saw Italy unified, become a European power, start to create an overseas empire and join the Entente powers in the First World War.

Disappointment with the terms of the 1919 Versailles Treaty and the post-war economic slump undermined Italian democracy and led to Benito Mussolini, founder of the National Fascist Party, becoming prime minister in 1922.

The great depression created the conditions for Nazi leader Adolph Hitler to become German chancellor in 1933 and destroy German democracy.

Italy left the League of Nations in 1936 following international action against its invasion and conquest of Ethiopia. It supported the anti-government rebellion in Spain but nevertheless sought to be a balancing factor between Nazi Germany and Britain and France.

Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the start of the Second World War set the scene for Italy to declare war against Britain and France in June 1940.

These are the main events in Italy’s rise and its eventual participation in the Second World War.

1861

March

17 Italy’s parliament proclaims Victor Emmanuel, king of Sardinia, to be King of Italy.

27 Rome is declared to be the capital of Italy, even though it was in the Papal States ruled by the Pope and not yet in the new kingdom.

 

1866

June

19 The third war of Italian reunification begins between the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy supported by Prussia.

October

3 The Treaty of Vienna is signed. It results in the transfer of Venetia including the city of Venice and most of Friuli to the French Empire, which then gave the region to Italy after the consent of the inhabitants through a referendum. The treaty represented the rise of Italy to be the sixth European great power with Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia.

 

1870

September

20 Kingdom of Italy captures Rome and occupies the Papal States. The Vatican refuses to recognise the loss of most of Rome and the Papal states until 1929.

 

1871

The seat of Italy’s government is moved from Florence to Rome.

 

1878

June

13 The Congress of Berlin opens to organise the states of the Balkan Peninsula after the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–78 which had been won by Russia. Italy attends as a European power.

 

1882

May

20 The Triple Alliance is formed between Austria, Germany and Italy. It is to last until 1915.

 

1883

July

29 Benito Mussolini is born in Dovia di Predappio in the province of Forlì.

 

1884

November

14 Italy participates in the Berlin conference convened by German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck to regulate European intervention in Africa. The conference closes on 25 February 1885. Italy is allocated a sphere of influence in the Horn of Africa and Ottoman Tripolitania.

 

1885

February

5 Italian troops land at Massawa in what is now Eritrea to replace Egyptian forces which had controlled the port since 1846. Italy’s willingness to accept a British invitation to set up a colony in Eritrea was fuelled by competition with France which had established a protectorate over Tunisia in 1881. Competition between France and Britain over the valley of the river Nile, which rose in Ethiopia, and in the Indian Ocean had intensified since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and Britain’s occupation of Egypt in 1882

 

1887

January

24 War begins between Italy and Ethopia over the delimitation of the Italian colony of Assab Bay in what is now southern Eritrea.

 

1889

April

20 Adolph Hitler is born in Branau am Inn, a small town in what was then Austro-Hungary close to the border with Germany.

May

2 Italy and Ethiopia sign the Treaty of Wuchale which set the boundaries of the Italian colony of Eritrea and effectively made Ethiopia a protectorate of Rome.

Ethiopia repudiates the treaty in 1893.

 

1896

March

1 Ethiopia defeats the Italian army at the battle of Adwa.

10 Italy’s prime minister Francesco Crispi resigns following the defeat at Adwa and demonstrations against foreign adventures.

October

23 Italy and Ethiopia sign the Treaty of Addis Ababa. It abrogates the Treaty of Wuchale and recognises the Ethiopia’s sovereign independence.

 

1902

June

30 France and Italy sign a secret treaty giving Paris freedom to intervene in Morocco and Italy to intervene in Tripolitania.

 

1911

September

11 Italy declares war on the Ottoman Empire and lands forces Tripolitania on 14 October.  Mussolini, then a left-wing socialist, opposes the invasion.

 

1912

October

12 Italy and the Ottoman Empire sign the Treaty of Ouchy which calls for the Ottomans to withdraw troops from Tripolitania and Benghazi. Territory that is to become now Libya is combined under Italian rule.

 

1914

July

28 Austro-Hungary invades Serbia in response to the assassination the previous month of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Serbian gunmen.

August

1 Germany declares war on Russia.

3 France declares war on Germany. Italy’s government declares that Italy will not commit its troops, maintaining that the Triple Alliance had only a defensive stance and Austria-Hungary had been the aggressor.

4 Britain declares war on Germany

6 Austria-Hungary declares war on Russia.

November

11 The Ottoman Empire declares war on Britain, France and Russia.

15 Then editor of the Socialist Party newspaper Avanti!, Mussolini calls for Italy to intervene in the war against the Central Powers. He was subsequently expelled from the Italian Socialist Party which opposed Italy’s participation in the conflict. Mussolini renounced Socialism and became an outspoken nationalist. He served in the Italian Army, including for nine months on the front-line. Mussolini was discharged from the army in February 1917 after suffering mortar shrapnel wounds.

December

11 Mussolini co-founds the Fascio d’Azione Rivoluzionaria to promote Italian intervention in the war.

 

1915

April

26 Italy signs the secret London Treaty with the UK, France and Russia. It promises Italian territorial expansion at the expense of Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and in Africa where it was promised enlargement of its colonies in return for Italy joining the war with the Allied powers.

May

22 Italy declares war against Austria-Hungary.

August

20 Italy declares war against the Ottoman Empire

 

1916

August

26 Italy declares war against Germany.

 

1917

March

8 The first Russian revolution of 1917 begins, leading to the deposition of Tsar Nicholas II and the establishment of a republic.

April

4 US declares war against Germany.

 

1918

October

30 The Armistice of Mudros ends hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and France, Italy and the UK.

November

3 Italy and Austria-Hungary sign an armistice agreement.

7 The second Russian revolution begins leading to the establishment of a new government dominated by Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin).

11 Germany signs an armistice agreement.

 

1919

March

19 An Italian expeditionary force occupies Antalya and other parts of south-west Anatolia.

June

23 The Fasci Italiani di Combattimento is founded by Mussolini and a group of supporters in Milan. In elections in November, the party performs poorly and wins no seats.

28 The Treaty of Versailles ending the state of war between Germany and the Allied powers including Italy is signed. Its fails to deliver promises made in the Treaty of London in 1916, disappointing Italian nationalists.

September

12 Italian nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio proclaims a state in the city of Fiume in what is now Croatia. It officially lasts until 1924, when Fiume was formally annexed to the Kingdom of Italy under the terms of the Treaty of Rome.

 

1920

February

24 The National Socialist Democratic Workers Party (NSDAP) is founded in Munich. Hitler’s is among its first members.

August

20 Treaty of Sevres is signed by the Ottoman Empire and the Allied powers. Italy is given possession of the Dodecanese Islands including Rhodes. Large parts of southern and west-central Anatolia, including the port city of Antalya and the historic Seljuk capital of Konya, are declared to be in an Italian zone of influence. Italian troops remain in Anatolia until the autumn of 1922.

 

1921

May

15 In Italy’s first post-war general election, The Fasci Italiani di Combattimento forms the National Bloc, a coalition of parties — including the governing party — opposed to socialism and communism. It receives 7 per cent of the vote and wins 35 seats in parliament (out of 535 total) including one held by Mussolini who enters parliament for the first time.

November

9 Mussolini founds the National Fascist Party to replace the Fasci.

 

1922

October

22 Mussolini declares in front of 60,000 militants at a rally in Naples: “Our programme is simple: we want to rule Italy.”

27 The March on Rome, an organised mass demonstration and a coup d’état, begins.

29 Mussolini is appointed head of the Italian government by King Victor Emmanuel III.

 

1923

July

24 Treaty of Lausanne is signed between the Allied powers and the Republic of Turkey, which had been declared to replace the Ottoman caliphate in November 1922. It replaces the Treaty of Sevres and restores a territory in Anatolia and Thrace to Turkey. Under the Treaty, France and Italy have only areas of economic interaction, rather than zones of influence, in Anatolia.

 

1928

Italy becomes effectively a one-party state under the National Fascist Party.

 

1929

February

11 Italy and the Vatican sign the Lateran treaty which recognises Vatican City as an independent state under the sovereignty of the Holy See. The Italian government agrees to pay the Roman Catholic Church financial compensation for the loss of the Papal States in 1870.

October

24 The Wall Street crash begins. It precipitates the great depression.

 

1933

January

30 Nazi party leader Adolph Hitler is appointed German chancellor. Soon after, he sends a personal message to Mussolini, declaring “admiration and homage” and high hopes for the future of German–Italian friendship, including a possible alliance.

June

14 Mussolini meets Hitler in Venice. He rejects Hitler’s call for Italy to pressure Austrian Chancellor Englebert Dollfuss to appoint Austrian Nazis to his cabinet. He is outraged when Austrian Nazis assassinate Dollfuss on 25 July. Mussolini holds Hitler responsible for the assassination and for violating a promise made in Venice to respect Austrian independence. He sends several army divisions and air squadrons to the Brenner Pass and warns that a German move against Austria would result in war. Frustrated by Italy’s opposition to a German takeover of Austria, Hitler sends weapons to Ethiopia.

 

1935

January

7  An agreement with France gives Italy a free hand in the Horn of Africa in return for Italian co-operation in Europe and particularly against Germany.

March

7 German forces enter the Rhineland in breach of treaties that ended the First World War.

April

14 Italy joins France and the UK in making the Final Declaration of the Stresa Conference in support of the independence of Austria and against any future attempt by the Germans to change the Treaty of Versailles.

June

18 The Anglo-German Naval Agreement (AGNA), which allows Germany to expand its navy, is signed without reference to Italy. It fatally undermines Mussolini’s support for the Stresa agreement.

October

3 Italian forces led by General Emilio De Bono cross the Mareb River and advance into Ethiopia from Eritrea while a smaller force attacks from Italian Somaliland without a declaration of war.

6  Adowa is captured by the Italy’s II Corps.

7 The League of Nations declares Italy to be the aggressor in the war in Ethiopia.

14 De Bono proclaims the end of slavery in Ethiopia

November

8 De Bono promoted to the rank of Marshal of Italy (Maresciallo d’Italia)

14 The National government led by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin wins a general election on a platform that includes upholding collective security and support for the League of Nations, which at least implied that Britain would support Ethiopia. The cabinet nevertheless decides upon a plan to give most of Ethiopia to Italy, with the rest in the Italian sphere of influence, as the best way of ending the war.

18 League of Nations imposes sanctions on Italy, including an arms embargo. They prove to be ineffective.

December

De Bono is replaced by general Pietro Badoglio, previously governor of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, to speed up the invasion.

8 British Foreign Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare discusses with his French counterpart Pierre Laval (who was both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister) how to end the war. British newspapers reveal leaked details of an agreement between them to give much of Ethiopia to Italy to end the war. The British Cabinet had not approved the preliminary plan, but decided to support it to not embarrass Hoare.

18 Following public uproar about the proposed agreement, Hoare resigns as British Foreign Secretary and is replaced by Anthony Eden, who was to become Prime Minister in 1955.

 

1936

May

2 Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie boards a train from Addis Ababa to Djibouti. From there he flees to the UK.

5 Italian forces occupy Addis Ababa, bringing the war with Ethiopia to an end

9 At Speaking to crowds in from the balcony of his office in Palazzo Venezia in Rome, Mussolini announces the foundation of the Italian Empire

June

Italy promulgates a constitution for Africa Orientale Italiana comprising Ethiopia, Eritrea and Italian. Badoglio becomes the first Viceroy and Governor General.

11 Badoglio returns to Italy to become supreme chief of the Italian general staff. Marshal Rudolfo Graziani, previously vice-governor of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and governor of Italian Somaliland. He becomes known as “the butcher of Ethiopia” for his brutal suppression of resistance.

July

17 A coup attempt in Spain marks the start of the Spanish civil war.

In September 1936 a non-intervention agreement was signed by 27 countries including Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and Italy but Italy continued to send aid to the Nationalist forces.

November

28 Italy signs a secret treaty with the Spanish Nationalists. In return for military aid, the Nationalist agreed to allow Italy to establish bases in Spain if there was a war with France. In August 1937 Italian submarines began torpedoing ships heading for Republican ports. The governments of Britain and France both made protests at this action and the following month Benito Mussolini brought an end to these attacks on shipping.

During the Spanish Civil War Italy sent 80,000 men, of whom almost 6,000 belonged to the Italian Air Force, 45,000 to the army and 29,000 to the fascist militia. Italy also supplied 1,800 cannon, 1,400 mortars, 3,400 machine-guns, 6,800 motor vehicles, 157 tanks, 213 bombers, 44 assault planes and 414 fighters.

October

25 Germany and Italy entered into a treaty of friendship in which they pledge to pursue a common foreign policy. The alliance became known as the Rome-Berlin Axis.

 

1937

6 November Italy joins the Anti-Comintern Pact agreed by Germany and Japan in October 1937.

December

11 Italy leaves the League of Nations.

 

1938

March

13 Germany annexes Austria

September

28 After months of mounting tension about German demands about the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, Mussolini supports Germany but persuades Hitler to participate in a peace conference in Munich.

30 Mussolini, UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain and French prime minister Édouard Daladier sign the Munich Agreement. It approves Germany’s occupation of the Sudetenland and an international commission to decide the future of other disputed areas.

 

 1939

March

15 German troops enter the remaining unoccupied Czech parts of Czechoslovakia, violating the Munich agreement. In reaction, France and the UK issue a promise of support to Poland in case of German aggression.

31 Mussolini says that “Italy will not truly be an independent nation so long as she has Corsica, Bizerta, Malta as the bars of her Mediterranean prison and Gibraltar and Suez as the walls.” Britain and France would have to be faced down and through armed conquest Italian “North Africa and Italian East Africa”—separated by Sudan—would be linked and the Mediterranean prison destroyed. Italy would then be able to march “either to the Indian Ocean through the Sudan and Abyssinia, or to the Atlantic by way of French North Africa”.

April

7 Italian forces land in Albania and within three days occupy the majority of the country.

9 Germany invades Denmark and Norway.

May

10 Germany invades Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

22 Italy expands its political alliance with Germany into a military one by signing the Pact of Friendship & Alliance. Mussolini names it the Pact of Steel. The agreement provided for military cooperation and mutual defensive support between Germany and Italy.

August

23 Germany and the Soviet Union sign a non-aggression pact.

 September

1 Germany invades Poland

3 September Britain and France declare war on Germany. Despite the Pact of Steel, Italy remains neutral. UK General Sir Archibald Wavell predicted that Mussolini’s pride would ultimately cause him to enter the war.

November

30 Soviet Union begins invasion of Finland.

December

10 The 1st Canadian Infantry Division starts to leave Canada for the UK. Elements of the division were sent to Brest for the final phase of the Battle for France but were quickly withdrawn.

 

1940

June

10 Italy declares war against France and the British Empire.

Click here to read the story of Sicily in the Second World War until the end of the Sicilian campaign