Eighty years ago, two Italian royal brothers experience very different destinies

 


The Italian empire took another step forward in the Balkans - on paper at least – after the forced union of the Italian and Albania crowns following the Italian invasion in 1939. A member of the Italian royal and briefly Imperial family, Duke Aimone of Spoleto, was announced as the King of Croatia at a ceremony at the Quirinal Palace in Rome. This was done ostensibly at the request of the self-appointed government of Croatia, previously part of Yugoslavia, under Ante Pavelić leader of the fascist Ustase. In theory Italy now ruled almost the entire coast of the Adriatic. Aimone took the regnal name Tomislav II but never reigned.

A more accurate register of Italy’s imperial future was the fate of Aimone’s elder brother, Amadeo Duke of Aosta. He had been Viceroy and governor-general of Italy’s possession in east Africa which had been conquered by British led forces without serious opposition. Amadeo commanded the last remnants of Italy’s forces at the mountain fortress of Amba Alagi which were surrounded and besieged by British troops and Ethiopian irregulars. Doubtless to his relief he was allowed to surrender to the former rather than the latter and became a prisoner of war in Kenya.

Hard on the heels of expelling the British from mainland Greece, the Germans attacked Crete to which many of the British led troops had retreated. They had not fully been reorganized into formed units. There were many Australian and New Zealand troops in both this contingent and the island’s established garrison under New Zealand General Bernard Freyberg VC. The German attack – Operation Mercury - was almost entirely airborne, both paratroop and glider. Ultra intelligence gave the defenders good warning and they inflicted severe casualties on the first waves of attackers and turned back an attempt at a seaborne invasion. However, the Germans were able to take control of the strategically vital airfield at Maleme almost immediately through a combination of aggressive leadership and confusion amongst the defenders.

The German battleship Bismarck accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sailed out into the Denmark Strait on a mission to attack allied convoys in the North Sea under the codename Rheinübung. Originally the Kriegsmarine commander Admiral Raeder had hoped that the two capital ships moored at Brest could have taken part but Scharnhorst’s engines needed to be repaired and Gneisenau had been badly damaged by a British torpedo attack. As well as the purely military objective, Raeder had in mind to score some notable success for his force and its establish its value to Germany  before the invasion of Russia in which it would play very part was launched.

Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, “reluctantly accepted” the decision of the government’s Chief Diplomatic Adviser to retire at the normal age of 60. Sir Robert Vansittart was to be made a baron as a reward for his services.  In reality his post was entirely empty and Vansittart had served no useful purpose since he had been moved from the substantial position as the professional head of the Foreign Office at the beginning of 1938.  Vansittart had been obsessively anti-German and saw himself as an early victim of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy along with Eden who had been forced out of office as Foreign Secretary a couple of months afterwards. In reality Eden had fully supported Vansittart’s demotion because he was erratic and difficult to work with. However redundant they might be, British civil servants were never sacked and Vansittart’s presence served as a useful reminder that it had under the Chamberlain government it damaged your career in the Foreign Office to recognize that Germany posed a major threat.

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