by David Lippman
Now Mussolini plans a coup. On October 16, he appoints Generals De Bono, Balbo, Bianchi, and De Vecchi to plan a four-pronged attack on Rome, to seize the Eternal City and the government. With 300,000 men, marching under skull-and-crossbones banners, he will seize power.
On October 27, the Fascists begin their march. Forty thousand Blackshirts camp in Tivoli’s Villa D’Este, 22 miles from Rome, on top of the Eternal City’s source of water and electrical power. At Monterotondo, 15 miles northeast of Rome, 13,000 Tuscan Blackshirts stand ready to grab the main railway lines. At Civitavecchia, Rome’s old seaport, more Blackshirts are ready to seize the railway to the coast. At dawn, more Blackshirts in hundreds of cities will seize post offices, prefectures, railway stations, Army barracks, and other government facilities.
The “army” headed for Rome is not well-equipped – one company of 130 men is armed with 80 hunting rifles and two machine-guns – and lacks food, water, money, and heavy guns. Another group equips itself by raiding a local cavalry museum. And worse, pouring rain and high winds are drenching the Fascists, adding to the misery.
Mussolini is ready to March. Emilio de Bono is on his right, Italo Balbo (with the insane hair) on his left and Cesare Marie de Vecchi on Balbo’s left.
Yet they take action. At 11 p.m., the 26-year-old red-bearded Italo Balbo, wearing his good-luck charm (a lock of Lucretia Borgia’s hair) orders Carlo Goldoni to take over the Ferrara railway station. They easily disarm the seven railway police officers, and at 1:08 a.m. on the 28th, the Trieste-Rome express (DD 49) comes barreling into the station from Padua. Goldoni and his crew hurl the train’s sleeping passengers out of their berths and into the street. With 120 of his pals, Goldoni boards the train, loading up the three machine-guns they stole from the museum. Goldoni himself mounts one machine-gun on the footplate next to engineer Vittorio Nespoli, who is part of the coup. The two exchange a long handshake, Nespoli pulls the whistle, and with a brass band playing on the train, DD 49 heads off for the Eternal City.
Nespoli is one of 11,000 Italian railwaymen who are Fascists, aiding the coup by letting their trains be hijacked by the Blackshirts. All across Italy, trainmen are turning over their passenger cars to Fascist troops.
Standing against this onrushing tide of trains and Blackshirts is the Italian army. Officers rip open sealed orders to find an eight-point memorandum that calls upon them to halt trains bearing more than 300 Fascists from heading for Rome – if necessary by force.
The orders are strong. Not so the Italian leadership. At the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome, King Vittorio Emanuele III and Prime Minister Luigi Facta are the two men who must make the decision to send Italy’s armed forces into battle against their own countrymen. As the night wears on, Vittorio and Facta ponder the situation at the palace. Below them, on the Piazza della Pilotta, 200 cavalrymen on white horses stand guard in the rain. Beyond the Palazzo, more nervous troops are deployed behind barbed-wire entanglements at Rome’s 15 gates and 17 bridges. A 9 p.m. curfew keeps citizens, cars, and trolleys (trams to Britons) off the streets.
King and Prime Minister are not friends. Actually, Vittorio Emanuele doesn’t like very much: his main interests in life are his wife, Queen Elena, his 60-cupboard coin collection, and his throne. Parsimonious to the point of wearing patched uniforms, barely five feet tall, Vittorio dislikes the Fascists and Socialists, but for differing reasons. The Fascists are bloodthirsty, while the Socialists are republicans. Yet nine retired generals and the King’s mother, Queen Margherita, support the Fascists.
The King studies Prime Minister Luigi Facta’s request to declare a State of Siege, which would send General Armando Diaz’s troops into the streets to restore order and arrest the Fascists. But Diaz, the hero of Caporetto, has already given a veiled warning to his King. Asked what the Army will do, Diaz has said, “The Army will do its duty – but it would be better not to put it to the test.”
As the night wears on, Vittorio is undecided – the Fascists are promising to support the throne. Facta and his Cabinet are in all-night session. The Fascists are moving, with varying degrees of determination. North of Rome, 400 Carabinieri have halted trainloads of Fascists. At Cremona, the King’s Guards have opened fire, killing seven Fascists. On the other hand, Fascists have seized the public utilities of Perugia, Florence, and six other cities. And at Army barracks, troops are giving out weapons to the Fascists.
At 2 a.m., Facta tries to contact the King for guidance. The call goes to General Ambrogio Clerici, the junior aide-de-camp to Vittorio. Clerici hunts down his immediate boss, Gen. Arturo Cittadini, and finds him in his bed, reading a book in his nightshirt. Clerici needs orders from the king, which must in turn come through Cittadini.
Clerici sees that Cittadini’s phone is dangling from its hook. Clerici moves to replace it, and Cittadini says, “Leave it as it is – and tell Facta you have not found me.”
“Is that wise?” Clerici gasps.
“These are His Majesty’s orders,” Cittadini answers. “He wants his government to perform its duty – but without the responsibility for their action on his shoulders.”
Five hours and 50 minutes later, Facta finally moves. He sends out Telegram No. 28859 to the Italian Army, proclaiming a State of Siege, and sending the troops out to “Maintain public order and security of persons and property.”
Ten minutes later, at 8 a.m., Vittorio summons Facta to the Quirinale Palace in the early morning rain, and snarls, “You evidently ignore constitutional law, to instruct the military before consulting me.”
Facta begs for forgiveness. He and his colleagues waited as long as possible for the Royal summons, to no avail. Facta has had to take action. He hands the King the Cabinet’s draft proclamation, which discusses the demonstrations going across the nation, and calls upon citizens to keep calm and support the police measures. As an added nudge to Vittorio, Facta holds up the traditional china cup of fine blue sand, which the kings of Savoy use to blot their signatures.
Vittorio does not reach for his goose-feather pen. Instead, he says something Facta cannot hear, and locks the proclamation in his desk drawer. “President,” the king says dryly, “The only thing resulting from a state of siege is civil war. What is called for here is that one of us must sacrifice himself.”
Facta gets the point. “It is not necessary, your Majesty, to indicate which one of us that will be.”
A short time later, Facta sends another telegram, No. 23870. This one reads: “You are warned that instruction contained in No. 28859 should not be carried out.” There will be no State of Siege. King and government have yielded.
With the Army, police, and government standing aside, the Fascists now march on Rome, hungry, soaked, and broke. Seventeen-year-old Novello Baroli and his fellow repairmen from Florence use wicker apple-baskets to bake the head of a sheep, their first meal in days. Sixteen year-old Giovanni Ruzzini, wearing a shirt freshly-dyed regulation black and a steel helmet, rides a packed train from Ancona.
Indeed, most marchers lack uniforms. Naples fishermen wear their reefer jerseys and pilot caps, Tuscan farmers their hunting jackets, and many are walking barefoot. Their weapons include shotguns dating back to 1880. Others are armed with golf clubs, garden hoes, and even table legs. One man juggles dynamite, and another group’s weapons are board-hard lengths of dried salt cod.
Some of the marchers have given everything they have – pawning their wives’ earrings to pay for train tickets. On the sides of the trains and trucks, they have scribbled “Rome or Death” and “Viva Mussolini.”
But Mussolini isn’t even making the march.
While King Vittorio ponders his future, Mussolini is sitting with his wife and daughter in the Manzoni Theater in Milan, watching a play, Ferenc Molnar’s “The Swan.” He was there the night before, with his latest mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, art critic for his newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia. He is appearing at the theater this night with his family to keep his enemies guessing as to his moves.
Halfway through the second act, he tells his family, “Let’s go,” and they all head back to the newspaper offices, much to Rachele Mussolini’s relief; she only likes light operetta.
At the newspaper’s offices, Mussolini’s staff have set up a war room, using rolls of newsprint to barricade the doors. Phones are ringing with reports of the march. The key phone operator is Count Dino Grandi, who is on the line with General Cittadini at the Quirinale Palace. He passes the world that the King wants Mussolini to form a government. Mussolini, suspicious, demands an official telegram.
At 3 a.m., Capt. Count Costanzo Ciano, a Great War naval hero and leading Fascist, phones Mussolini from Rome, saying, “Listen, Mussolini, how do you want this cursed telegram from the King to you?” The big question is whether the key sentence will read “unofficial” or “official charge to form the ministry.” Mussolini wants it “official.” He gets it.
Ciano then begs Mussolini to fly to Rome. Not until he gets that telegram, and as he dictated it. Then Mussolini goes into his private office, and lights the red bulb outside his door – the “Do Not Disturb” sign. There he starts writing his newspaper’s editorial on the backs of envelopes and delicatessen wrapping paper, saying, “Victory already appears to be widespread, with the nation’s near-unanimous consent, but the victory should not be mutilated by last-minute concessions.” Outside, sub-editor Luigie Freddi awaits the handwritten document. His job is to decipher the handwriting for the printers. By now it is early Sunday morning, October 29.
All morning long rain and Fascists continue to fall on Rome, and Mussolini waits at his newspaper for the telegram. It arrives at noon, and Mussolini’s brother Arnaldo presents it to Benito. No word on whether anybody tipped the telegraph boy. He sits down and reads it: “The King begs you to proceed to Rome as soon as possible as he wishes to entrust you with the task of forming a Cabinet.” Not what Mussolini dictated, but good enough.
David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the new School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II Plus 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're always pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.