Italian forces after September 1943

The Italian armed forces after September 1943 until 1945: Mussolini’s ‘Italian Socialist Republic’ in the north and the ‘Co-Belligerent’ troops of the Kingdom of Italy fighting on the Allied side in the south.

Italian troops loyal to Mussolini
In October 1943, these Italian troops are loyal to Mussolini, who celebrates this fact together with some German soldiers.

The Italian armed forces 1943 to 1945

arrow Here to the previous part: Italian Armed Forces 1942.

After Mussolini’s deposition and the subsequent Italian capitulation, two new armed forces emerged in Italy: the fascist troops of Mussolini’s ‘Italian Socialist Republic’ (RSI), which were deployed against partisans and Allied troops, as well as against the ‘Co-Belligerent’ units of the Kingdom of Italy from the south, which was fighting on the Allied side. In addition to the battles between German and Allied troops, this often led to civil war-like clashes between the two opposing Italian camps.

Army of the Italian Socialist Republic

Mussolini evacuation from Gran Sasso
Mussolini and behind him Skorzeny in tropical uniform board the Fieseler Fi 156 Storch for the evacuation from Gran Sasso.

Mussolini after his rescue.
Mussolini after his rescue. Behind him is the tall Skorzeny.
On 12 September 1943, German paratroopers liberated Benito Mussolini and six days later the ‘Italian Socialist Republic’ was proclaimed, which took up the fight on the side of the Germans against the Allies and the kingdom in the south.
Forming a new army in a war zone was not easy. The Germans refused to release the 600,000 Italian soldiers they had captured on 8 September, as they were to be used in the German armaments’ industry. However, Mussolini was allowed to recruit 13,000 volunteers from these men.

By March 1944, the fascists had managed to bring 60,000 men under arms. Between September and November 1944, the first four divisions that had been sent to Germany for equipment and training returned to Italy. They fought alongside the Germans for the remainder of the Italian campaign.

Mussolini with SS guards
In northern Italy Mussolini is now always accompanied by SS guards.


Mussolini in winter 1944-45
Mussolini inspects RSI soldiers in the winter of 1944-45.
At the beginning, the uniforms of the original Italian Army and RSI were basically the same as before 8 September 1943.
However, all monarchist symbols were removed from the insignia and the five-pointed star was replaced by a Roman sword (‘Cladio’) in a laurel wreath, which became the symbol of the RSI.
A new dress code was introduced in late 1944 to bring the Italian uniform more in line with the German look, but the general war and supply situation meant that these regulations never really came into force and only a few senior officers actually wore them.
The RSI was far too preoccupied with its fight for survival against the Allies and the internal threat from communist and royalist partisans to give much thought to its uniforms.

RSI divisions trained in Germany
A grenade launcher team from the RSI divisions trained in Germany.
The uniform was a very mixed combination of the classic Sahariana and anoraks, camouflage clothing and the new collarless paratrooper jacket. The old grey-green tunic was often unbuttoned in the German style. Long trousers, buttoned at the ankle and worn with boots and rolled woollen socks, or pantaloons with leggings were typical.
Both officers and enlisted men added to the confusion by using the most varied and eccentric styles in their dress. The pointed Bustina was widely worn as headgear, alongside the Alpini hat and the Bersaglieri fez.

Rank insignia

The rank insignia were moved from the cuffs to the shoulder straps, but the new pattern of rank insignia from the September 1944 regulation was never introduced.
The divisions trained and equipped in Germany adopted German rank insignia as a practical measure to enable the German instructors to immediately recognise the ranks of the Italian officers and men. After their return to Italy, however, the German rank insignia were generally removed.
New coloured insignia and collar patches were introduced to indicate rank.

Paramilitary forces

Italian militiaman of the fascist Legion Tagliamento
Italian militiaman of the fascist Legion Tagliamento in 1944, armed with German stick grenades and a Beretta M38 submachine gun.
The Guardia Nazionale Republicana (GNR) was founded on 24 November 1943 to replace the fascist MVSN (Black Shirts), which had proved unreliable when Mussolini was deposed in the summer of 1943.
The GNR, made up of former members of the Carabinieri militia (which had also been disbanded because it had been loyal to the king) and former members of the Italian African police, was used for both military and civilian police duties.
With the constitution of the Socialist Republic, former members of the old fascist cadres (squadristi) reappeared and began to comb the country in search of ‘traitors’. Pavolini, secretary of the National Fascist Party, wanted to use the Squadristi in the war against the internal resistance and against the partisans, and so on 26 July 1944 the Black Brigades were founded as an armed force of the Fascist Party.
Notorious for their cruelty in the service of the German security forces (SS, SD and police), the Black Brigades represented the best and at the same time the worst elements of the Socialist Republic: decorated heroes, child mascots, common criminals, opportunists and idealists.

The National Guard retained the collar tabs and black shirt of the militia (MVSN), but adopted a pair of red letters ‘M’ (for Mussolini) in place of the Gladio.

Brigate Nera
Volunteers of the ‘Brigate Nera’ (Black Brigades).
In theory, the Black Brigades (Brigate Nera) had the simplest uniforms, consisting of a black beret, black shirt and grey-green tunic or woollen jumper. The trousers were grey-green or khaki, depending on the season.
In reality, however, an astonishing variety of extravagant and irregular uniforms and insignia of personal invention were worn, the common denominator of which was the skull and crossbones and mottos, all of which included death.

RSI Air Force

Veltro and Bf 109
A Veltro of the National Republican Air Force together with a German Bf 109 over the Alps.

Fiat G 55 Centauro
Fiat G.55 Centauro fighter of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic in the spring of 1945 in northern Italy. In the period January 1944 to April 1945, the RSI Air Force succeeded in shooting down 240 Allied aircraft, mostly B-17 and B-24 bombers.
The RSI Air Force was founded on 27 October 1943. It was founded thanks to Lieutenant Colonel ‘Ironfoot’ Botto, a man known for his great organisational skills and respectability, both towards unruly pilots and the Germans.
After the Italian surrender, the Germans had confiscated all available Italian aeroplanes and equipment and taken pilots and technicians prisoner. Botto managed to get most of it back, but his clashes with General Wolfram von Richthofen and German attempts to incorporate the RSI air force into the German Luftwaffe meant that the Italians were not operational until October 1943.

Between January 1944 and April 1945, they managed to shoot down 240 Allied aircraft, mainly B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators.
The main strength of the RSI air force lay in fighter and torpedo aircraft. There was a bomber squadron, but this was sent to the eastern front for political reasons.
Torpedo planes operated against the Allied fleet in the Mediterranean from March 1944 and in June of that year they also took part in the bombing of Gibraltar.

After September 1943, the uniform of the Air Force of the Socialist Republic remained practically unchanged, only the star on it was replaced by the Gladio.

Navy of the RSI

Only a few members of the navy joined Mussolini’s MAS flotilla, which instructed German combat swimmers in the use of small warboats and, together with them, carried out attacks on Allied ships, which by this time had already taken routine precautions against such attacks.

About a dozen MAS boats and small submarines were deployed there. However, most of the ex-Italian ships were taken over and manned by the German navy. As a result, the Fascist navy reached only five per cent of the size of the ‘Co-Belligerent’ fleet of the Italian kingdom to the south.

Italian 'human torpedoes' Maiale (pig)
The Italian ‘Maiale’ (pigs), which were extremely successful in the first half of the war, were torpedo-like submarines with two men who sat astride their craft and planted explosive charges under enemy ships.

Marine and sailor RSI
On the left a marine and on the right a sailor of the RSI (both 1944). The marines were 25,000 strong until April 1944 and were deployed as the X*MAS division, primarily against partisans, and were regarded by the Allied soldiers as hardened fighters, well-trained and highly motivated.
The uniforms of the Navy of the Italian Socialist Republic underwent only a few changes compared to before. The crown was removed from the cap and replaced by a winged bird, the stars on the collar were replaced by the Gladio on the Refeer coat and on the sailors’ blue denim collar.

The lace on the cap band to distinguish ranks was replaced by different patterns of chin straps, which were blue and gold for lower officer ranks and gold for higher ranks.
The traditional sailor’s cap was no longer used and was replaced by a blue beret with a small gold-plated metal anchor on the front.
From 1943, the republican marines received the grey-green uniform of the paratroopers (see illustration on the right).

Italian Co-Belligerent Forces

Soldiers of the 1st Raggruppamento Motorizzato
Soldiers of the 1st Raggruppamento Motorizzato. They all wear the khaki uniform of the Italian army and are armed with the Mannlicher-Carcano carbine with folding bayonet.

On 28 September 1943, the Kingdom’s first military unit in southern Italy was formed as the First Motorised Combat Group (1st Raggruppamento Motorizzato) with a strength of 295 officers and 5,387 men. Its first deployment was in the Cassino sector on Monte Lungo and played a key role in dispelling the Allies’ mistrust of Italian soldiers fighting on their side.

After its deployment with the American 5th Army and the reorganisation, the Raggruppamenio was transferred to the Polish corps on the extreme left wing of the British 8th Army. On 17 April 1944, the now 22,000-strong formation was given the name ‘Italian Liberation Corps’ (Corpo Italiano di Liberazione) and consisted of the core of the 184th Nembo Paratrooper and Utili Infantry Division. In September and October 1944, the corps was split into four Gruppi di Combattimento and the direct successor unit was the ‘Folgore’. In addition, the groups ‘Cremona’ (core of the 44th Infantry Division), ‘Legano’ (core of the 58th Infantry Division) and ‘Friuli’ (core of the 20th Infantry Division) were formed.

Young Bren MG gunner
Young Bren MG gunner of the 6th Infantry Regiment of the Legnano Battle Group from the royalist troops from the south in British uniform.
The continuous influx of volunteers made it possible to form further formations, but for political reasons the units, which were now actually brought up to divisional strength, were still referred to as combat groups.
Each Gruppi di Combattimento consisted of two infantry and one artillery regiment, a mixed battalion of sappers, two detachments of carabinieri (military police) and administrative services with a total of 400 officers and 9,000 men.
The first six of these groups arrived at the front in early 1945, but political considerations led the Allies to play down the role of the royalist troops in the victory in Italy.
Another important element of the Italian forces on the Allied side were, of course, the partisans. However, they were inconsistently organised and uniformed.

Italian partisans in 1944 with Beretta sub-machine guns
Italian partisans in 1944 with Beretta sub-machine guns.

Co-Belligerent fleet

The Italian navy played an important role after the armistice was signed. A total of five battleships, eight cruisers, 33 destroyers, 39 submarines, 12 MTBs, 22 escort ships and three minelayers of the Regia Navale formed the Co-Belligerent fleet. There were also four squadrons of seaplanes from the Regia Aeronautica.

The Italian Chief of Staff set up his headquarters in Taranto, but three cruisers were soon detached to hunt blockade runners in the South Atlantic.
Other ships were used for various tasks in the Mediterranean after being repaired and overhauled. One of the most important contributions of the Italian Navy was its help in restoring Italian harbours to supply Allied troops.
In addition, Italian frogmen, together with British mini-submarines, sank two cruisers and the aircraft carrier Aquila, which were in harbours occupied by German troops.

Baltimore IV bombers flying over the Balkans with the Stormo Baltimore
Ex-RAF Baltimore IV bombers flying over the Balkans with the Stormo Baltimore of the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force.


Major General of the Co-Belligerent Forces
Major General of the Co-Belligerent Forces, 1944, this officer commanded the ‘Gruppi di Combattimento Folgore’ and wears the British battle dress with a khaki beret.
Initially, the grey-green or khaki-coloured Italian uniforms with the insignia of the House of Savoy on the chest were used.
The lack of supplies of any kind – partly due to Allied bombing raids and partly due to German confiscations – forced the Italians in the south to adopt Allied uniforms and equipment. Their choice fell on English uniforms, on which the Italian insignia continued to be used unchanged.
The Bersaglieri and the Alpini also attached their respective plumes to the British steel helmet.

As it seemed necessary to be able to distinguish the Italians from the other Allied troops, a rectangular badge in the Italian national colours was introduced, which was worn at the top of the left sleeve. The emblem of the respective combat group was printed in black on the white of the Italian tricolour.

Officers moved the rank insignia from the cuff to the shoulder straps. The uniforms of the royalist air force and navy did not undergo any major changes compared to the time before the Italian capitulation.

References and literature

The Armed Forces of World War II (Andrew Mollo)
The Italian Army 1940-45 (3) – Italy 1943-45 (Philip Jowett, Stephen Andrew)
World War II – A Statistical Survey (John Ellis)

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