Winston Churchill and the “Twenties” in Italy by Roy Quinton

Winston Churchill and the “Twenties” in Italy
By Roy Quinton

Whenever the vast majority of us think of Winston, we think of his pivotal role in ensuring that our country stood up against Nazi Germany- (and rightly so). There was a time in the 1920s when his priorities were of a different kind. He was, above all else, vehemently opposed to the Russian Revolution and favoured military intervention to defeat the Bolsheviks, and this meant that he was extremely suspicious of the Left in politics, in general…. even the Trades Union Movement in Britain. The failure of Intervention only made him more inclined to take a benevolent view of Right-wing regimes which were in the process of seizing power in other European countries. Thus, he was misled in his earlier opinions, which are clearly to be witnessed in his statements and writings.

In the 1920s, Western Europe witnessed a series of events which, to Winston, appeared to support his fears for the future:- Hungary became, for a very short period, a Soviet Republic, under the direction of Bela Kuhn, but the regime was overthrown by Right wing forces led by Admiral Horthy, whilst, in Germany, in Bavaria, the Communists had succeeded in establishing, also for a very short time, another Soviet Republic…this too was overthrown by units of the German Army, and control of Bavaria was once more, nominally, back in Central Government control, although, in the process, it led to the rise of the extreme Right wing, led by Hitler, and the gradual defection of leading lights of the German Establishment, to Hitler’s newly created National Socialist German Workers Party. One such important figure was General Ludendorff, second in Command to General Hindenburg in WW1. Thus, Winston, in 1935, understandably had some sympathy for Hitler, describing how he admired Hitler’s leadership and courage in successfully overcoming all obstacles in his path; clearly an illusion to Hitler’s suppression of the Communists and Socialists, a viewpoint shared by many of his contemporaries, since the eventual external threat to other countries that Hitler would soon represent was not yet apparent to them.

In the same way, in 1927, on visiting Italy, he had declared:- “if I had been an Italian, I am sure I should have been wholeheartedly with you, from the start to finish, in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism” In the same vein he wrote:- “in the conflict between Fascism and Bolshevism, there was no doubt where my sympathies and convictions lay”. In February 1933, he praised Mussolini as: – “the greatest law-giver among men” He added that Mussolini had “rendered a service to the world.” By 1935, the real objectives of Hitler had become apparent to him, yet when General Francisco Franco and most of the Spanish Armed forces rose up against the Spanish Republic in that same year, Winston continued to think that an Italo-General Franco alliance was still possible and that it could lead to the defeat of:- “the Communist front” in Spain. At that time the Republican Government of Spain was a totally democratic one and it was not until the very last stages of the conflict that the Communists succeeded in obtaining majority control, and this because of the West’s failure to allow the Spanish Government to purchase from it the necessary arms to defend itself and doing nothing to oppose German and Italian interference in the conflict on the side of Franco and causing it to turn to the USSR for support. It is true that Winston was successful in persuading Franco to adopt a policy of active neutrality in WW2, in return for assurances of subsequent support for the latter and his regime. This was to be of great value in that it prevented Hitler from having access to Spanish territory and, thus, enabling him to seize control of Gibraltar. The significance of that was of enormous strategic importance. However, from the Spanish people’s point of view, it was to delay its recovery of freedom until 1969, with the death of Franco.

Winston’s illusion was almost at an end when, in May 1940, the information that he received indicated that Mussolini was about to join the war on Hitler’s side. He wrote a letter to the latter, begging him to avoid such a precipitous action, only to be finally disillusioned on the 10th June, when Mussolini formally declared War against Britain and France. From that time, the safety of Britain and of the British Empire was, as always, his prime concern and, for the rest of the war, he supported, in 1941, the link with his declared enemy, Communist Russia, to ensure that Hitler did not prevail. From 1946 onwards, however, he returned to his pre-war priority, namely opposition to Communism.

The reason I have mentioned all the afore going is that it is pivotal to the matters with which I am concerned in this article. Practically everything is largely unproven but, here say or not, Italian journalists continue to raise the question of the “Churchill Files”

What we do know for sure is that in late April of 1945, Mussolini’s Republican Fascist Government in Salo’, on Lake Garda, collapsed, following the decision of its German patron to surrender to the Allies with effect from 2nd May 1945. Marshal Graziani , Commander-in-Chief of the Republican Fascist Army accompanied the German Military Representatives when they journeyed to Allied HQ in Casserta to sign the Document of Surrender, to which he appended his signature, also, even though the Allies had never recognized the legitimacy of the Government of Salo’. Thus, Mussolini’s sole preoccupation from there on, was with his own personal safety and to this effect, he sought to negotiate with the CLN, Committee of National Liberation. He and members of the Fascist hierarchy travelled to Milan in an armed convoy, but the talks came to nothing. They then decided to make a break for it for the safety of nearby Switzerland, following minor roads around Lake Como, and under cover of a German convoy with the same idea in mind. Mussolini found himself alone when Pavolini and the rest of the Fascist leaders broke away. The latter, however, were apprehended by armed Partisans who promptly lined them up and executed them all. Mussolini was hidden in a German vehicle, dressed as a simple German soldier. However, at a place along the Lake named Moltrasio, a Partisan band intercepted the convoy and one of them recognized Mussolini, who, together with his lover, Clara Pettacci, was arrested and taken to another village named Dongo, where, the next morning, Mussolini was executed, and his lover also lost her life as she raced towards and embraced Mussolini and caught the full force of machine pistol bullets. It had not been the intention to shoot her. It appeared that the CLN did not wish to proceed against Mussolini without formal trial but the commander of the Partisan execution squad, believing that Mussolini might survive with just a prison sentence and, years afterwards, return to make a nuisance of himself, once more, carried out the execution without more ado. This act itself was the subject of polemics in Italy, which dragged on for years.

Now, it is not disputed that Mussolini was carrying with him several files and it has been maintained that some pertained to the archives of correspondence that he had had with Winston, in the distant past. We do know that the Partisan Commander lodged them, for safety, in a small Bank located in Moltrasio and that the Bank was owned by an Italian Industrialist by the name of Donegani, who had, subsequently, been imprisoned by the Allies in San Vittore jail because of his close connections with the former Italian dictator. The tale, and that is all it was, goes that he was released on Winston’s advice. This is where unconfirmed rumour after rumour succeeded. All that is known is that, later, the files were not found on the Bank’s premises. The Italian State denied it had any knowledge of the whereabouts of the files but, years later, some journalists claimed to have discovered their whereabouts and planned to publish the contents. At that point the authorities DID take an interest and demanded that they be handed over. When this had been done, the authorities promptly declared them to be forgeries. However, they refused to release the documents, and the question is; – why not, if they were not genuine?

Now some years ago I saw a programme on one of the Sky TV channels, I am sure it was either the History Channel or the Discovery Channel, in which viewers were given a glance at the contents of one of the documents and I must say the document I saw looked very official, indeed. I cursed myself for not having had a blank video cassette so that I could have recorded the programme. I am thinking of writing to Sky about getting a copy of it, for the programme has not since been rebroadcast, to my knowledge. The files were said to have been recovered from an Italian Lake, near Milan

The question of the “Churchill Files” has repeatedly surfaced in Italy and the whole matter is the subject of claim and denial. The last time was in 2015.

Now this is where an incident occurred when my Italian wife, my mother-in –law and myself went out for a car ride one afternoon, when in holiday, in Italy. My wife’s parents had moved from Perugia-(where I had met my future wife)- to a villa located in a small village, named Olgiate Molgora, just off the main Milan highway and only 23 kilometres from the small town of Lecco which is situated on a branch of Lake Como. My brother-in-law, a qualified pharmacist, had moved there and purchased a Pharmacy.

Almost every afternoon, we took my mother-in-law, a semi invalid, for a ride in the general area of Lake Como. Not far from Como there were other much smaller and less well known
Lakes – (hence the term “the Italian Lakes area”)-and, on that day, I drove them to the small lake called OGGIONO, not far from my mother-in-law’s place of residence.

When we arrived, I halted my car outside a small lake-side café, where we enjoyed a coffee and a few small cakes. In the café we found several locals and, before long, I found myself chatting to one of them. I touched upon my time in Italy as a soldier and, at one point, the man concerned told me of an incident which had taken place a few years after the war. He said that he had been in that same café, together with a number of friends, when he saw a truck full of armed Carabinieri and preceded by a large civilian car, come to a halt at the lakeside, just a hundred or so metres from the cafe. From the car four people, dressed in civilian clothes, alighted, at which point all the Carabinieri did the same. After some discussion, the latter moved up in line in the direction of the café and came to a halt a short distance from it. The leading policeman then told all and sundry not to move towards the beach, since some of the bye standers had clearly indicated that curiosity had prompted them to start to do so. The four civilians then went to the Carabinieri’s truck and removed what appeared to be a very extensive length of wire netting attached to very long poles. They carried it all to the lakeside, where several boats had been moored,
Everything having been thrown aboard one of them, they then cut the moorings, rowed the boat out into the lake and launched the apparatus into the water, where they moved the poles about for a good hour, within a small designated area, at the end of which they brought to the surface a number of what appeared to be large cases, all tied together with a single thong of some kind. With these on board they returned to the lakeside, transferred everything to the police truck, got in their car again and prepared to depart. Once the carabinieri men had got back into their truck, both vehicles then made their way back to the main road.

At this juncture, my interlocutor, told me that, some years later, when the so-called Churchill files had become to be the subject of newspaper articles, his thoughts returned to that episode on lake Oggiono, but, with typical Italian caution, decided not to stick his nose in things he didn’t understand.

Now the last time the whereabouts of Mussolini’s archives had been located was in the Bank in Moltrasio, from where they were, subsequently, found to have disappeared. The next we learned was the allegation by some journalists that they had located them and intended to publish their contents. As already stated, the Italian State then took possession of whatever the journalists had got hold of and then declared the papers to be forgeries. If my interlocutor at Lake Oggiono had, in fact, witnessed their recovery from the lake, the presence of the carabinieri officers clearly meant that the Italian State had laid its hands on them at that time. How then are we to be convinced that the journalists were able to get their hands on them, when the authorities must already have had them in their possession?

The entire affair is bound up with allegations, counter allegations and rumours one after the other. Frankly, I can’t see that Mr Churchill would have been all that concerned about it all, since he had never disputed that he had had correspondence with Mussolini. What I do know is that, in the end, much of the furore suited the neo fascists who were only too pleased to blacken Churchill’s name as much as they could and still do their best to ensure that the whole episode is never put to rest. Yet I, myself, must admit that it all weighs on my mind from time to time. Perhaps it is best that we remember the words of a post-war politician- (whose name I can’t remember)- who remarked that nothing should be allowed to get in the way of a good story!!!

Roy Quinton