ski troop

Mountain Warfare on the Italian Front

The white war.

In May 1915, Italy joined the Entente and attacked Austra-Hungary, its neighbor and great rival, along their Alpine border. Four years of mountain warfare commenced, which some of the most brutal fighting of World War I in its least hospitable conditions.

Geography and strategy did not align well for Italian planners. Most Italians had not been particularly enthusiastic for war, and Rome wanted a quick victory that would take Austria’s last Italian possessions, like Trentino and Trieste. Therefore Italy’s army needed to attack. But virtually the entire Austro-Italian border consisted of the Alps, running from the virtually impassible Dolomites at Trentino, to the somewhat gentler east, where stood the Isonzo River and the rocky, barren, Karst Plateau. This is where Italy’s Commander-in-Chief Luigi Cadorna made eleven vigorous attacks during the war, heading eastward over the Isozo into Slovenia, coming to a head at the town of Gorizia.

The Austrians had suffered severely on the Eastern Front by 1915, but Cadorna’s opposite number, General Conrad von Hötzendorf, knew precisely where to deploy his limited men. The Austrians heavily fortified the Isonzo, blasting trenches, dugouts, and artillery positions into Alpine rock. The highest peaks became crucial observation points. Even if they ran out of machine gun bullets and gun shells, the Austrians could probably roll rocks down the mountains and still have an advantage over the Italians attacking uphill.

Austrians keep watch over the Isonzo.

The following four years covered the Alps in blood. Italy fought four battles alone for the Isonzo in 1915. Each proved indecisive and costly. The Austrians gave better than they got, but had too few men to counter-attack themselves. In the higher ranges of the Alps, a “white war” started in the snow and ice. Ski-troops and mountain climbers were the norm, avalanches caused by artillery killed thousands in seconds. Even supplying the men here required Herculean logistical efforts: guns, soldiers, horses, etc. were brought up mountain peaks with complex pulley-systems, elevators, and even ziplines.

An Italian Alpini mountain specialist ziplines from one peak to another.

The pattern of failed Italian offensives changed suddenly in October 1917, when Austrian and German troops launched a surprise attack at Caparetto that routed the defending Italians. Some 20,000 prisoners fell into Central Powers hands within a few days. Thousands of demoralized Italian soldiers were abandoned by Cadorna as he pulled forces back; yet the general had no sympathy for his men - some claim he literally reintroduced the ancient Roman practice of decimation, killing one man in ten in some units. More likely he had individual stragglers executed for cowardice.

A tough place for a war.

Despite this poor showing of Italian arms, they turned defeat into victory in 1918, halting a final Austrian attack on the Piave and launching their own counteroffensive which soon turned into a full-scale pursuit of terrified and starving Austrian troops. The cherished revanchist territory of Trentino and Trieste finally fell into Italian hands. But the unpopular war had come at terrible cost: at least 600,000 dead, almost twice that wounded. These are only estimates. To this day, the frozen corpses of Italian and Austrian soldiers show up every summer in the Alps. Perhaps it is no surprise that so many Italian soldiers, like Benito Mussolini, returned home bitter, anxious for rapid political change, and full of hate.

Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, a rare breed.

Following family expectation Carton went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he lasted not a year before leaving to join the British Army at the time of the Second Boer War, sometime in 1899. His father was left oblivious until Carton received his first serious wounds, these to the stomach and groin. Carton returned to South Africa before transferring to India in 1902. He spent the years until 1914 enjoying life in the British Empire, running, playing sports and shooting. Part of Europe’s Catholic aristocracy he spent leave travelling through Europe, shooting on various estates.

Things began to liven up as the First World War kicked off in 1914. He first went to Somalia where Britain were still fighting a colonial war with the  followers of Mohammed bin Abdullah, “Mad Mullah” to the British. There he was shot twice in the face, losing his eye and a portion of an ear. Shrugging this off however, by February 1915 he was on the Western Front. By years end he had lost his left hand, removing his own fingers when a doctor declined to do the job. On the Somme he was shot through the skull and ankle, at Passchendaele through the hip, at Cambrai through the leg and at Arras through the ear. In July 1916, aged 36, he won the Victoria Cross, taking control of a battlefield after three battalion Commanders became casualties; ‘passing unflinchingly through fire barrage of the most intense nature.’

He spent the interwar years in diplomatic service, mostly in Poland where he made Royal friendships and shot each day on a 500,000 acre estate. As World War 2 interrupted his peace he made valuable strategic contributions to Poland’s resistance. While retreating with the Polish commander Rydz-Śmigły to Romania his car convoy was attacked by the Luftwaffe, killing his wife.

Promoted to acting major-general, in November 1940 he led a small force to occupy a small Norwegian town. Things quickly went wrong and he wound up being attacked by German ski troops and machine gunned and bombed from the air while the German Navy was landing troops to his rear. He suggested withdrawal but was told to hang on, so he did, until a few days later his force was finally rescued by the Royal Navy - led through the fog by Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Sent to Serbia in a Wellington Bomber six months later, both engines failed off the coast of Italian-controlled Libya. The plane crashed a mile from the shore, knocking Carton unconscious, but the cold water brought him to. Swimming ashore he became a prisoner of war. Unsurprisingly he made five escape attempts, one tunneling endeavour taking seven months. Rather amusingly, given he was a 61 year old pale skinned male with one eye, one arm and no knowledge of Italian, he spent eight days on the run disguised as an Italian peasant.

Back in England, after the capitulation of Italy, Carton was summoned to spend a night with Churchill at Chequers. Churchill was sending him to China as his personal representative. There he reported mainly on the rise of the Chinese Communists, who he despised. Meeting Mao at a dinner event, he interrupted the father of modern China’s speech to criticise his lack of effort in fighting the Japanese. The surprised Chairmen laughed, probably very nervously. After visiting Singapore for the Japanese surrender and then Tokyo to meet Douglas MacArthur, the 66 year old Carton de Wiart retired in October 1947. He died age 83 on 5 June 1963 after many years quietly fishing for Salmon and shooting Snipe in County Cork, Ireland.

“Governments may think and say as they like, but force cannot be eliminated, and it is the only real and unanswerable power. We are told that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I know which of these weapons I would choose.” ― Adrian Carton de Wiart


Soviet NKL-26 Aerosani
Snow of course has always proved a challenge to military vehicles, and various armies have come up with some unique concepts for dealing with it. One of the most visually interesting was the Russian NKL-26 Aerosani; a lightweight plywood box with ten-millimeter armour plate on the front and armed with a 7.62mm DT machine gun in a top mounted ring. It was powered by an M-11G aircraft engine, and could reportedly reach speeds up to 25–35 km/h in deep snow, where most other vehicles couldn’t move at all. Each NKL-26 was operated by two crewmen, and could carry four ski troops riding outside the vehicle on its skis.

A member of a ski-troop unit is posing for the photographer. Note the MP38 he is carrying, which features the old style retracting handle and the leather safety strap to fix the bolt in its forward position. Partly covered by the submachine gun are the magazine pouches, containing three magazines each.

Swiss ski-troops prepare for a patrol in spring, 1945. Although the threat of invasion was gone, and the refugees and internees were now awaiting their opportunity to return home, the specter of World War II would not so easily vanish for the Swiss. While the necessity of trading with Nazi Germany was perhaps understood by the Allied powers, the Allies were not so eager to forgive or forget other transgressions, especially the hundreds of millions of dollars in assets that they believed had been hidden by the Nazis in Swiss accounts, not to mention millions in gold that the Swiss had bought.

Only when America chose to freeze over one billion dollars in Swiss assets in the US did Switzerland allow any exemption to their notoriously strict banking laws, but insisting on conducting the audit themselves, the $250 million in German assets that they reported in Swiss banks was only 1/3 the number the Allies believed to be there. And just because the Swiss admitted it was there didn’t make thing much easier, as it took more negotiations to force the Swiss to turn over 50 percent of the assets to the Allies, who claimed title to them (the other half Switzerland claimed to pay for German debts to the government).

As for the infamous gold, the Allies claimed that the Swiss had bought some $300 million in gold from the Germans during the war for Swiss francs - despite the fact that the gold was almost certainly stolen from national stores, and even Holocaust victims. The Swiss denied most of the claims, only compensating Belgium and France for $58 million that was stolen from their respective national banks. When suspiciously new gold 20-franc pieces began appearing suddenly in the late ‘40s with mid-'30s dates on them, no one could prove that the Swiss were secretly trying to rid themselves of the ill-gotten gains.

In addition to these immediate post-war concerns, decades later it would come to light that tens of thousands of Swiss bank accounts existed with the deposits of Holocaust victims, sitting unclaimed in numbered accounts since the 1940s and with the Swiss refusing assistance to heirs attempting to find the money. It would take lawsuits and diplomatic pressure before Switzerland finally agreed to a 1.25 billion dollar settlement in 2000, to be paid out to survivors and heirs of the victims. The Swiss popular memory of the war had resolutely remained one of unified, defiant resistance to the Nazi specter, and more than any preivous revelation, this event was a catalyst for a public reevaluation of that popular narrative.

(Motorbuch Verlag)