No. 25 NAI DFA 219/6

Confidential report from Michael MacWhite to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)
(Confidential) (Copy)

Rome, 15 September 1939

If it were not for the disappearance of motor traffic from the streets and the scarcity of foreigners in public places, the aspect of Rome at the moment has all the appearances of normality. The Café habitués are in their usual places from six to eight every evening and late comers will have to be satisfied with the less fashionable resorts, off the main thoroughfares. It would be difficult to tell from the faces of the people that their next door neighbours are fighting a desperate war in which they themselves may be plunged at any moment.

Despite this superficial calm there is immense activity behind the screen from which the public gaze is excluded. There was a public announcement that two classes were to be called to the colours on the third of September. They had eight days' notice and an extra day of grace was given them to show that there was neither haste nor anxiety – less so even than if it were for any army manoeuvre. Since then, however, no further classes have been called, as such, but thousands of individuals get their marching orders overnight to present themselves at their battalion headquarters within twenty-four hours. In this fashion, without any outcry, the effective of perhaps two or three other classes are now under arms.

Large reinforcements sail almost daily from North Africa and Sardinia. The naval and air mobilisation was completed some time ago. Since the fourth of September Italian munition factories are working on a twenty-four hour schedule and at the beginning of this week Factory heads received orders to ignore the clauses of the law governing the conditions of labour of which Fascist leaders are so proud.

There is a scarcity of many articles of prime necessity. The sale of coffee has been forbidden altogether and large money prizes are being offered to chemists and others who can provide an artificial substitute for tea and coffee. Sugar is only obtainable occasionally and only then at an abnormal cost. Bicycles are no longer obtainable and those ordering same are told they must wait three months for delivery. In accordance with the policy of re-assuring the public, automobiles may be allowed to run again, but the price of gasoline has been increased from 3.50 lire to 8 lire per litre. Only very few Italians can afford to pay this price so the apparent concession turns out to be a Greek gift.

It is now reported on good authority that hospitals in the North East of Italy near the Yougoslav frontier, have been evacuated and put in readiness for the reception of refugees, it is said, but what refugees? It would appear as if they are being prepared in anticipation for national requirements. Now that Hitler has control of most of Poland, can it be that he invites the Duce to help himself to Yougoslavia? Whether this be so or not, it is certain that Italy is preparing for war as discreetly as possible.

In a recent article Gayda1 admitted as much and added that this country would play an important role in the European struggle if, when, and where its best interests would be served thereby. He did not say on which side, as that will depend on whether France and England are ready and willing to pay the high price the Duce demands. Hitler, who realises the danger of a long war, would not hesitate, perhaps, to bid higher, even though he may not be in a position to honour his signature on the day of reckoning.

If Italy were to place herself on the side of England and France at the moment, Hitler's cause would be irretrievably lost, for the Balkan States are awake to the Duce's slightest gesture and his support of the allies would set the armies of Roumania, Yougoslavia and even Hungary, marching against Germany. They are held back now from helping Poland because of their fear of being attacked from behind.

Even if Italy decides that her best interests are served by remaining neutral and wishes to do so, the day might come when the Allies would force her to show her colours, for one thing is certain, that if this war lasts for three years, there will be no neutrals. It is even doubtful that many will be regarded as such at the end of three months. It may be, and there are military experts who hold the opinion, that Italy by remaining neutral is a greater asset to Germany than if the two armies were fighting side by side. There are no fortifications of any consequence on the old Austro-Italian frontier and if, by any chance, a French army were able to crash its way into Northern Italy, the seat of Italian industry would be in their hands, and the back door to Germany within easy reach.

From the naval and economic angle, even without any military disaster, Italy would be in a very embarrassing position. She would be cut off from her supplies of food and raw materials – oil, wool, cotton, steel, copper, etc. She could not hope for any supplies from her North African Colonies as they are not self supporting. She could hardly hope to get the mastery of the Mediterranean without which she would be completely isolated. The Suez Canal would be closed and so also would the Dardanelles and, in all likelihood, British Colonial troops would attempt to seize Ethiopia from the Italian garrison which would be then cut off from the mother country. All this would lead a realist to conclude that the Duce, by remaining neutral, for the time being, is acting with good judgment and common sense. He holds some excellent cards in his hands, but if he raises the stakes beyond the reach of the other players he may find himself in the same predicament as many an old time gambler in an American mining camp.

[signed] M. MacWhite

1 Virginio Gayda, Italian journalist and editor of Il Giornale d'Italia.

Purchase Volumes Online

Purchase Volumes Online



The Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series has published an eBook of confidential correspondence on the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations.

Free Download

International Counterparts

The international network of Editors of Diplomatic Documents was founded in 1988. Delegations from different parts of the world met for the first time in London in 1989.
Read more ....

Website design and developed by FUSIO