Vittorio Ambrosio, 1879-1958

Vittorio Ambrosio (1879-1958) was an Italian general who was the last chief of the general staff before the fall of Mussolini in 1943.

Ambrosio was born in Turin, and joined the army, where he became a cavalry officer. He commanded a cavalry squadron during the invasion of Libya (1911-12). He then held staff positions, before commanding the Third Cavalry Division from 1915 until 1918.

In 1941 he commanded the 2nd Italian Army. This force took part in the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia, although didn't begin moving until 11 April 1941, several days after the German invasion. His troops began a slow advance from Trieste into Slovenia and along the Dalmatian Coast. At the same time the Germans were sweeping through the country, and Yugoslavia surrendered on 17 April 1941

In 1942 he became chief of staff of the Italian army, serving under the chief of the defence staff, General Cavallero.

Like many in the Italian high command, Ambrosio took some time to realise the significance of the American entry into the war. In mid 1942 he was still convinced that a victory of the Soviet Union would force the British and Americans to make peace. This might have been the case for Britain if Russia had collapsed during 1941, but not by 1942.

In mid-November, in the aftermath of Operation Torch, Ambrosio and Cavallero considered withdrawing three divisions from the Soviet Union to boost the defences of Italy, but nothing came of the idea.

Ambrosio was one of the few senior Italian leaders who saw that there was no point in attempting to defend Libya in the aftermath of El Alamein, and that even the defence of Tunisia was only valuable if it allowed the retreating Axis troops to be evacuated from North Africa (Rommel shared his views, but most of the Italian high command wanted Rommel to fight on in Libya, and Hitler insisted on defending Tunisia to the bitter end.

On 30 January 1943 Ambrosio's boss, Cavallero, was sacked as Chief of the General Staff (Commando Supremo). Ambrosio was appointed to replace him, becoming the last chief of the general staff before the Italian surrender.

In his new role he unsuccessfully attempted to reduce German domination of the Italian war effort. In March 1943 he was able to fight off a German attempt to place the Italian Navy under their control. However Italy's desperate situation meant that he could only take this so far, and he had to make a series of requests for German help. This included regular calls for more Luftwaffe units. In February 1943 he made a request for 750 tanks, 7,400 trucks, 750,000 anti-tank mines, 500 aircraft, 326 radar sets, forty sonar sets, eight frigates, twelve MTBs and thirty mine sweepers. Unsurprisingly very few of these items were actually available.

One of his achievements was the creation of a Ministry of War Production, which replaced a system in which each of the three services had control of their own weapon development and production. Unfortunately the new Minister almost immediately gave away most of his powers, so the system remained largely unchanged.

In March 1943 he asked Mussolini if it would be better to withdraw from Tunisia to save the troops there for 'the heavy tasks to come?', but undermined his own case by suggesting that Hitler wouldn't sent troops to help defend Italy if Tunisia was lost.

In April he sent another list of requests to Germany, this time asking for 1,250 tanks, 372 artillery guns, 1,350 anti-tank guns and 500 aircraft.

On 7-10 April 1943 Ambrosio was present at a meeting between Hitler and Mussolini at Klessheim, in which Hitler made it clear that he would continue the war against Russia. The Germans promised to provide some help for Italy, but not on the vast scale requested by Ambrosio and Mussolini.

In the aftermath of the final defeat in Tunisia Ambrosio was confident that an Allied invasion of Italy would fail, and reassured Mussolini that any such attack would either fail or have little strategic impact. Three weeks later the Allies invaded Sicily. Ambrosio was perhaps not as confident as he seemed, for on 19 June, after the Allies occupied Pantelleria, he asked the Germans for 2,100 artillery guns, 800 tanks and 2,000 aircraft. The number of aircraft was especially unrealistic, as the Luftwaffe's own front line strength on 30 June was only 3,512 aircraft!

Ambrosio was a close ally of King Victor Emmanuel III during the events that led to the first fall of Mussolini. Ambrosio was faced with a difficult situation, in that he needed German help to defend southern Italy, but expected the Germans to take their revenge if Mussolini went. On 22 July he asked for two more German divisions to be sent to Italy, before on 24-25 July Mussolini was deposed by Victor Emmanuel and the Fascist High Council.

In the aftermath of the fall of Mussolini Ambrosio retained his post in Badoglio's new government. He was still faced by the same problems as before. On 6 August he met with Ribbentrop and Keitel and requested the return of Italian divisions then serving in France and the Balkans. This only helped to confirm German suspicions of the Badoglio government, and Hitler moved extra forces to Italy. Ironically on 15 August Ambrosio made another request for German reinforcements.

Ambrosio played a part in negotiating the armistice with Eisenhower. On 12 August he sent General Guiseppe Castellano as a personal envoy to Lisbon to approach the British and Americans. On 19 August Castellano began negotiations with Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's chief of staff. Castellano returned to Italy, then on 31 August flew to Sicily where on 3 September he signed the first version of the armistice. Badoglio made it clear that this was to remain secret as long as possible, and so Ambrosia was unable to warn the Italian armed forces of what was about to happen. As a result when the Italian armistice with the Allies was made public by Eisenhower on 8 September the Germans were quickly able to secure control of central and northern Italy.

Ambrosio was able to flee to safety along with Badoglio and the Royal family, reaching Allied held territory at Brindisi. He resigned as chief of the defence staff on 18 November 1943 and became Army Inspector General, a fairly minor post.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 August 2017), Vittorio Ambrosio, 1879-1958 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_ambrosio.html

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