Giovanni Messe, 1883-1968

Giovanni Messe (1883-1968) was a capable Italian general who fought in the Eastern Front before commanding Rommel's old army in Tunisia during 1943.

Messe fought in the Italian conquest of Libya in 1911. He took part in the conquest of Abyssinia, the invasion of Albania and the disastrous invasion of Greece.

Mussolini had not been informed of the invasion of Russia in advance, but once it happened Mussolini was determined to sent troops to the Eastern Front, practically having to force them onto Hitler. In July 1941 the Germans agreed to take three Italian divisions, with 62,000 men, which would form the Italian Expeditionary Corps, or Corpo de Spedizone Italiano in Russia. Messe was given command of this force, which reached the front line in the Ukraine two months after the start of the invasion. Right from the start the Italians suffered from poor, outdated equipment, limited mobility and a general lack of supplies.  

When they first arrived the Italians were placed under the German Eleventh Army. They were later transferred to von Kleist's First Panzer Army. From June 1942 the Italians were placed under the German Seventeenth Army.

In 1942 the Italians expanded their commitment to the Eastern Front, turning the single corps into a full army. On 2 June 1942 Messe, who was in Rome at the time, was informed that he wouldn't be given command of the new Italian Eighth Army, which instead would go to General Italo Gariboldi, who had a mediocre track record in North Africa.

During 1942 the Italians formed part of the force protecting the northern flank of the German advance towards Stalingrad. By September the Italian 8th Army had over 200,000 men, 18,000 trucks and artillery tractors, 946 artillery guns, nearly 300 47mm anti-tank guns, 52 anti-aircraft guns and 50 of the better Italian fighters, a force that would have been much more useful to the Italians in North Africa. Messe remained on the Eastern Front until 1 November 1942, leaving just before the start of the Soviet offensive that destroyed the Italian Eighth Army. By the end of December the Italians had lost 80,000 dead or missing, and almost all of their equipment.

On his return to Italy Messe was promoted to Generale d'Armata. Early in 1943 he was chosen to replace Rommel as commander of the Panzer Army Africa, which would be renamed the 1st Italian Army once he had taken over. Rommel was told that he was being relieved from command due to ill health, but he was allowed to pick the date on which he would hand over to Messe. Rommel was unhappy that a German hadn't been found to command his old army, even though most of the troops were Italian, but after Messe arrived in Tunisia at the start of February he made a good impression on Rommel.

Messe arrived just as Rommel was in the middle of his last success in North Africa. On 4 February Rommel suggested a combined attack by the two Axis armies in North Africa against the US 2nd Corps. The first phase, Operation Fruhlingswind and Operation Morgenluft, pushed the Allies back towards the Kasserine Pass. On 18 February Rommel suggested a further attack towards Tebessa. He was given permission for a less ambitious attack towards Le Kef, but was also given command of all the forces that would be involved in the attack. At the same time Messe finally took over the First Italian Army. This gave him command  of the Trieste, Spezia, Pistoia and Young Fascist divisions and the Afrika Korps (commanded by Fritz Bayerlein who also serves as Messe's chief of staff). This was a significant moment, as it was the first time that an Italian general had been given operational control over German troops in North Africa.

Rommel's final attack, into the Kasserine Pass, ended in failure. He then decided to try and attack Montgomery's Eighth Army before it had fully dug in facing the Mareth Line. Rommel wanted a two pronged assault, but Messe, who now had command of the troops involved in the plan, insisted on a simple attack on the British left, involving four divisions. Rommel gave way and allowed Messe to develop the plan. These plans were intercepted by the British and so Montgomery knew exactly was coming. The resulting battle of Medenine (6 March 1943) was a costly defeat for Messe. It also marked Rommel's last significant action in North Africa. On 9 March he left Africa for the last time, leaving General von Arnim as commander of Army Group Afrika.

Messe's next task was to try and defend the Mareth Line. At first all went well. Montgomery's attack began on 20 March, with an underpowered frontal assault. At first the British were able to break into the Axis lines, but Messe counterattacked and by the night of 22-24 March the British were forced to abandon that part of the plan. Montgomery had already begun an outflanking move, and that now paid off. On 25 March Messe moved troops to block this move, through the Tebaga Gap, but on the same day von Arnim ordered him to begin to retreat north. Montgomery's second phase, Operation Supercharge II, began late on 26 March and made rapid progress. However a desperate German rearguard action at El Hamma on 27 March prevented the Allies from closing the trap, and the survivors from Messe's army managed to escape north. Even so six of his divisions were no longer effective fighting units.

On 29 March Messe began to take up a new position, in the Gabes Gap. On the same day the fighting at El Hamma ended, so the Allies were soon in pursuit. Although the new position was quite strong, Messe didn't have the time or men to defend it properly. Montgomery attacked on 6 April, and Messe was forced to retreat once again on 7 April (battle of Gabes or Wadi Akarit).

Messe now withdrew to Enfidaville, where his troops formed the left wing of the final Axis position in Tunisia. Montgomery attacked this position just before the start of the main Allied attack on this beach head (Operation Vulcan). The resulting battle of Enfidaville (19-21 April 1943) was a rare failure for Montgomery, and Messe was able to hold most of his positions in the mountainous terrain to the north and west of the town. Montgomery quickly recognised that the attack had failed, and cancelled it after only three days.

Messe's command didn't play a major part in the final offensives, as the main Allied effort was made further to the north. However he was the last senior Axis commander to surrender. After the Allies broke through further north they captured Bizerta and Tunis, and then moved east to capture the Cape Bon Peninsula. They then turned south, and Messe found himself trapped between the two Allied forces. On 12 May von Arnim surrendered, and on 13 May Messe surrendered to General Freyberg, command of X Corps in the Eighth Army.

Just before his surrender Messi was promoted to Field Marshal by Mussolini. However after the fall of Mussolini he quickly changed allegiance and supported Badoglio's government. He was appointed Chief of Staff of the co-belligerent Italian Army, a post he held to the end of the war.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 September 2017), Giovanni Messe, 1883-1968 ,

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