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Dated:  Jan 6, 2006

Italian Military Organizations

Fascists Army  - Royal Army - Partisan

  This page presents a general overview of the Italian military and politcal organization.  If you think the post-war Italian political history is confusing, the military history is even more.  This describes the different organizations during Mussolini's reign and the Royal Army after he was made a puppet to the Germans from 1943 to 1945.
For other units, go to:
German Units
British Units
French Units

For more history of Italy during WW2:
Rise and Fall of Mussolini and the Fascists.
Italy in WW2 History of Italy's involvment in the War.
History of King Victor Emmanuel III.

Partisan Organization
A sketchy overview of the Partisans in Italy.
Executuion of Mussolini The Last few days of Mussolini. 
WARNING: Contains photos not suitable for children.

Military Organization of Fascists Army

Pre-September 1943
Fascist Party Militia or Milizia Volontaria Sicurezza Niazionale (MVSN).
The MVSN (
Volunteer Militia for National Security) was the Fascist Militia formed soon after Mussolini's rise to power in 1923.  The primary function of the MVSN was political control and police duties. Its military function was the organization of Black Shirt battalions for service within each division of the Royal Army.   The MVSN were distinguished by their uniform in several ways.  The fascio emblem was used on the hat and the collar tabs.  A black shirt uniform was worn, except usually not in combat.

Black Shirts or Squadracce Nere  - The Black Shirt battalions were orignally the strong arm of the party and were known as the squadristi.  They served in independent groups or as assault battalions attached to the regular army divisions.   There was some resistance to incorporating the Black Shirts into the regular army and Il Duce had to issue an order requiring it in 1941.  Two Black Shirt battalions were organized for each of the 133 MVSN legions.  A battalion consisted of 20 officers and 650 men.
   Separate Black Shirt divisions were organized for the Ethiopian campaign. The six divisions were named after important dates in Fascist's history:  23 Marzo,   28 Ottobre,  21 Aprile,  3 Gennaio,  1 Febbraio  &  Trevere.
   As a result of the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, four divisions were raised but all were captured in North Africa. The four were:
        21 Aprile Division was disbanded in May 1940
        3 Gennaio Division was captured at Sidi Barrani, Egypt on 12 December 1940.
        23 Marzo & 28 Ottobre Divisions were captured in Bardia on 4 January 1941.

Royal Army - The Royal Army was the regular army that originated before Mussolini came to power. Unlike the German army's uniform, the grey-green uniform adopted in 1909 remained unaltered due to the political changes.   But many improvements and changes were made to make it more comfortable, especially in the topical climate of North Africa.

Uniform Details: In 1933 a new uniform was adopted, the Baistrocchi, that replaced the high collar WW1-era tunic with an open collar, worn with a shirt and tie. The bustina (a soft cap with front bill folded up) began to replace the old kepi and the peaked visor cap(shown below) in the field. In 1935, a new type helmet was introduced to replace the French helmet. It remained in use throughout WW2 and even into the post-War  years.  Alpini(alpine) and Bersaglieri (light infantry) troops were elite units; the Alpini wore a special peaked cap and the Bersaglieri wore a wide-brimmed, black hat with a cluster of cock feathers.  They also displayed the cock feathers in their steel helments and tropical helmets (see examples of both Alpini and Bersaglieri hats,  below) .
The uniform changed in 1939 to eliminate the epaulet rank insignia and moved the rank insignia to the sleeves. Each division and branch wore a unique colored collar patch. However, all collar patches had a small 5-pointed star attached which signified the unity of Italy. [The MVSN wore a fascio emblem instead (or fasces)].  Sometimes the colored branch "flame" tab for artillery, cavlary, etc. was worn on top of the divisional collar tab.  In 1940, NCOs and Officers wore tailor-made tunics made of fine gaberdine, known as cordellino.

Two examples of Peaked Visor Caps & different insignia.  
Corps Artillery and Army Artillery.
Rank was denoted by stripes around base of hat.

10th Army Tropical Helmet

An Tropical helmet of the  10th Corps Artillery
The helmet displays a unit badge on a cloth national cockade.  The helmet is made of cork.  This one is missing the leather chin strap.
(From my personal collection. )
A Tropical pith helmet worn by 12th Bersaglieri.
The tropical helmet was common for Italian and German troops in North Africa.  Note cock feathers and sand goggles.
The Bersaglieri wore the cock feathers on their steel helmet.
Alpini Hat

An Officer's hat worn by
6th Alpini Regiment

The Alpini
or Mountain Troops wore only 1 crow's feather in their hat.
The red pom-pom usually denotes the 2nd Battalion.  However,
the 6th Alpini Regiment did not use red.  Instead this was adopted by one company established before the unit went to Russia; the 216a Compagnia Armi di Accompagnamento (216th Heavy Weapons Company.
The 6th Alpini Regiment fought in Russia with the 2nd Alpini Division TRIDENTINA.  This regiment lead a column of German troops in a breakout of their encirclement around Stalingrad.

(From my personal collection, thanks to Balbi Fabio. )

Fascists Organization after September 1943   

When the Italians outsted Mussolini in July 1943 and surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, the Germans began taking control of Italy and its army.  Germans disarmed the Italians, executed some, and transported 615,000 Italians to German labor camps. The Fascists element that was loyal to Mussolini remained allied to the Germans and the new puppet Italian government headed by the rescued Mussolini.

Italian Social Republic - RSI
The armed forces of the Italian Social Republic were raised on 28 October 1943, exactly 19 years from the month & year that Mussolini came to power.  Most of those who joined did so to avoid the German labor camps.  The RSI consisted of the ENR and GNR.

National Republican Army or Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano (ENR), (part of RSI).
Made up of 4 divisions and smaller autonomous units that were organized from the Italians that had been interned by the Germans when Italy surrendered. The RSI included the ‘Monterosa’ Alpine, ‘Italia’ Bersaglieri, ‘San Marco’ Marine and ‘Littorio’ Infantry Divisions.  They wore a wreathed sword badge on the lapel of their tunic.

Republican National Guard or Guardia Nazionale Republicana (GNR), (part of RSI).
GNR was formed as a new Fascist militia(part of RSI) to replace the Black Shirt MSVN, from members who remained loyal to Mussolini.  They were the primary anti-partisan security force.

Black Brigades Later, a new organization had to be formed to support the GNR, called the "Black Brigades" or Brigate Nerre. Their uniform varied greatly but usually consisted of a black field cap or beretto da campagna modelled on the German 1943 field cap. A short black wool jacket, similar to the British battle dress blouse, was in widespread use.  One common feature was a unit name badge worn over the left breast pocket, generally rectangular, red over black with 'Brigata Nere' in silver.   

The distinctive cap badge of the Black Brigades was worn on the uniform and on soft caps.  A similar emblem was stenciled on a black helmet.   (post-1943)
(Red background for photo only.)

A Fascists Fez with the fasces emblem 
of the Black Shirts (pre-1943).

X-MAS (pronounced "Decima Mas") was an autonomous unit of the RSI forces raised by the commander of a pre-Armistice Italian Navy special attack unit, the 10th Anti-submarine Motorboat Flotilla (10 Flottiglia Motoscafo Anti-Sommergibile).

Italian Waffen-SS
Called by different names as it grew from a brigade to a full division, it was officially named the 29 Waffen-Grenadier der SS (Italienische Nr: 1).  The 29th SS  fought at Anzio front in May 1944, but operated mostly as a police and anti-partisan unit.
The former Bersaglieri unit, named Fortunato, returned from the Russian front and was organized into the "1st Brigata D'Assalto della legione SS Italiana".   One fierce unit, named "Debica", fought  at Nettuno(Anzio), May 1944, and was the first to fight after the armistice.  It surrendered on April 29, 1945, outside Gorgonzola when surrounded by overwhelming American armor.
On June 15, 1944, the division was reorganized in Fireze with fresh German and Italian troops and the Reichsfuhrer-SS communicated the following order:
            "For valor demonstrated and with a sense of duty, the Italian legion of the
              29th Waffen-SS shall hereafter adopt the black collar and grade insignia of
             the German SS and be eligible for all duties and rights of the German SS."
The motto of the Italian SS Division was "Per l'Onore e per la Vita" which was similar to German SS unit's motto "Meine Ehre heisst Treue".
Poster - Italian SS
                     An Italian SS patch and a recruitment poster.
The SS patch is similar to the Waffen-SS emblem, except the eagle holds a fasces instead of the German swastika.  The SS eagle patch was worn of the left sleeve instead of the right breast pocket as with other German branches of service.  The patch and collar tab insignia were originally on a red background but later changed to a black backgroud.

Other RSI units:  A large number of small autonomous units were raised that only existed briefly.
     Ispettorato Speciale Polizia Antipartigiana (ISPA) -  Anti-partisan police unit
     White Flame or Fiamme Bianche – Boys of Fascists Youth movement.
     Sardegna Volunteers Battalion – A 500-man unit that operated near Yugoslavian border.
     Alpine Rifles or Moschettieri delle Alpi – Ex-Alpini soldiers in the Aosta region.
     Appenine Hunters or Cacciatori degli Appennini – A major anti-partisan unit with 3 regiments, reportedly a strength of 10,000.
     Women Volunteer Corps  (SAF)

The Germans began Operation ACHSE to disarm the Italian Army after the September 8, 1943 Armistice.
 The Italians in this photo are being disarmed by the German 2nd Parachute Division.
Of interest are the various types of smocks, shirts, shorts and pants worn by the paratroopers.
Note the Luftwaffe eagle on the German paratrooper helmet(2nd from left).
Photo Source:  "Mussolini's Soldiers", a good refernce book on Italian uniforms.

Military Organization of the Co-Belligerent Forces

After September 1943, the Royal Army that could surrender to the Allies did so and were re-equipped as support troops. Those that were in areas controlled by the Germans met the fate mentioned above. The following are the combat units formed from the remnant of the Royal Army and served the Allies.  Many Italians provided direct support to the Allies on an unofficial basis as translators, guides and logistical support.

1st Motorized Group or 1st Raggruppamento Motorizzato was the first Italian unit to fight on the side of the Allies at Monte Lungo.  On their Italian uniforms they wore a distinctive small red shield with a white cross, the symbol for the house of Savoy.

Italian Liberation Corps or Corpo Italiano di Liberazione  (CLI).  The Badoglio government formed a force of 22,000 soldiers to fight with the Allies.  The CLI were equiped with Italian uniforms and material.  The CLI were organized into two divisions: 'Nembo' & 'Utili' from the former Nembo parachute division and the 1st Raggruppamento Motorizzato(above).  These troops saw action at Gustav Line & Monte Cassino.  After 4 months, it grew large enough and was formed into 6 Combat Groups(see next item).

Royal Army or "Army of the South" or Co-Belligerent Forces
 The Combat Groups were eventually armed and equipped with Allied supplies, mostly British.  A Royal Army star was worn on the collar.  The individual combat groups were identified by a rectangular, tricolor arm patch on their left sleeve with a central figure described below.
                   ‘Cremona’ – ear of wheat             ‘Mantova’ – an eagle
                   ‘Legnano’ – a knight                      ‘Piceno’ – a Roman arch
                   ‘Friuli’ –  a city gate                        ‘Folgore’ – a lightning bolt

Pack Transport Units.  Italian volunteers were used to lead mule trains through mountain trails to supply the Allies with food, ammunition and supplies.  This was a very dangerous job as the mountain trails were few but often mined and their exact location were plotted by the German artillery.  They were equipped with a special British battledress dyed dark green and wore an arm badge of a red circle with green letters "TN".  Since many had been ex-Alpini troops, they often wore Alpine hats.

Russian Front Badge
Issued to troops who fought at the Russian Front, this badge was
 proudly worn by both RSI and Royal Army troops on the breast pocket.

"If you think its cold here, you should be in Russia"  an Italian saying.


Partisan Organizations

A Short History of Italian Resistance
  The anti-fascists movement began soon after the March on Rome in 28 Oct 1922, which established Mussolini as the primary power in the Italian Republic.  Mussolini began to control the county and put an end to riots and unrest.  Some people thought the Fascists were becoming too powerful.  Sandro Pertini was one of the first to rise up and mobilize public opinion against the Fascists.  The Black Shirts beat him and eventually sentenced him to 15 years of solitary confinement.
    Pope Pius XI saw in Mussolini an ally to combat bolshevism.  The church in Italy, like the church in Germany in 1933, signed a concordance.  The Church gave up political power in the state in exchange for recognition as the state religion and the autonomy of the Vatican.  This also ended the Catholic youth clubs.
    In 1935 Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, breaking his promise of “peace and order”.  Then Mussolini began to ally with Hitler and made a pact in 1939 that included a promise of peace.   Many influential Italians preferred friendship with the British and French.  By 1942, the country had suffered from fighting in North Africa, Greece, and Russia.  Condition at the home front had worsened and there were riots due to food shortage.  Most people thought fascism was good in the beginning because it brought order and ended the riots.  The joke was that everyone was a Fascist but no one was.  Many university intellectuals paid lip service but continued to teach democratic principles.   Underground newspapers sprung up around the country but the country was still ruled under Mussolini's strong arm.
    The day Mussolini was removed from office, 25 July 1943, the Christian Democrat party was formed.  It stated it was not a Catholic party—but it received support of conservative Catholics and clergy.  As the Fascists re-organized under the protection of the Germany Army, more resistance groups formed seperately in different regions of the country.  The resistance groups grew and were organized into committees.  The partisan were supplied with weapons and supplies by the Allies, usually by night parachute drops.  As the Allies pushed further north, the numbers of partisans grew.  By the end of the war, there were 224,000 militant partisans.  Of these 63,000 were killed and more than 33,000 wounded, in addition to 15,000 to 20,000 civilians who were murdered.

Committe of National Liberation -  Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale(CNL)
      or Corpo Voluntari della Liber
A committee to oversee the various partisan groups, including following political parties: 
      Catholic Party -  "Peoples" or "Catholic Brigades"
      Socialist Party – Matteotti Brigades
      Republican – Mazzini Brigades
      Anarchist – Red Flag Units
      Actionist Party – Justice and Freedom Brigades
There were other organizations that were formed on a local basis.  These included the Osoppo Brigades, formed by two priests, which grew to the strength of 10 battalions by April 1944.  The Green Flames was a unit from Lombardy.  Other units were Ossola Valley and Aosta Valley groups.

National Liberation Committee for Northern Italy (CLNAI).  A group of partisans behind German lines in Northern Italy that was established as a rival to the CLN.

Gruppi de Azione Patriotica (GAP) (Groups for Patriotic Action).  One of the first well-organized partisan groups.

Staffetta - "Messenger" -  A group of patriotic workers, mainly women, who were performed the important role of communications between different partisan groups and leaders.   These could be "pregnant" women transporting leaflets or ID cards or "Red Cross nurses" smuggling medical supplies.

                    Garibaldi Star

   A medal awarded to Resistance fighters.

   (Resembles the US Bronze Star Medal in shape
        & color of ribbon.)



     "The Other Italy: The Italian Resistance in WW2"
- by Maria de Blasio Wilhelm, W.W. Norton & Co., 1988.
     "Mussolini's Soldiers" - by Rex Trye, Motor Books Intl, 1987.  ISBN 0-7603-0022-4.
     "The Allied Forces in Italy; 1943- 1945" - by Guido Rosignoli. David & Charles Publishers, 1989.   ISBN 0715392123.
    "The Italian Army (1943-1945)" - 3 volumes - Osprey's Men-At-Arms series by Philip S. Jowett.  Osprey Pub Co., 2001.

The Italian Uniforms was quite confusing for the Americans
as Bill Mauldin's cartoon so aptly conveys.

One Opinion of the Italian Soldier

   "Italian soldiers are neither better nor worse than the soldiers of any other nation.  All men are by nature fond of the family, of life and peace.  To enjoy war is surely degenerate; it appeals more to the single, adventure-seeking man than to the father of a family.  Yet in the life of a nation the father, as head of the smallest unit, is more important than the adventurous youth, who in war is the first to be sacrificed.  This fact was even more significant to the Italian, who lives so much within the family, than to the German.  If the father of a large and young family is killed in action, the only result is bitterness and woe.


   "Before the days of Mussolini, Italy was not averse to war.  How otherwise could it have successfully borne the heavy and protracted battles of the Isonzo during the First World War?  Piedmont is the cradle of Italy’s military prowess.  With the exception of Prussia, no dynasty was ever as militant as the House of Savoy.  It was the campaigns of the Piedmontese battalions that unified Italy, thereby fulfilling the dreams of many generations.  Everywhere the memorials bore witness to this fact.


   "At Turin and in that neighborhood were a number of military schools. The Peidmontese nobility, like the Prussian one, put service in the army on a higher plane than any other service to the state.  The discipline was good.  In Piedmont there were also many alpine units, the best that the Italian Army could produce---proud, quiet, outwardly not very disciplined troops, but reliable types, brought up the heard way, accustomed to camping in the eternal snows with only the barest supplies.  They were magnificent soldiers, to whose pride and modesty I paid tribute whenever I happened to encounter an Alpino.  The Navy, too, was good, though I had few contacts with it."

Quoted from book "Neither Hopr Nor Fear", by General Frido von Senger und Etterlin, the defender of Cassino and the German commander of the XIV Panzer Corps. 

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