No. 167 UCDA P194/540

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

Rome, 2 May 1940

Since the outbreak of the present European conflict Italy has passed through many anxious moments when the country seemed to be on the brink of war. On none of these occasions, however, has the feeling been so intense as during the past week. Today, everybody is pessimistic and in diplomatic circles the worst is feared.

Last Friday, on winding up the session of the Fascist Chamber its President, Count Grandi,1 a reputed moderate and former Ambassador to Great Britain, startled the public when he said 'The Fascist Empire is not and does not know how to be outside this conflict'. Then on Sunday night Signor Ansaldo, editor of the Foreign Minister's newspaper, 'Il Telegrafo', in a broadcast to the armed forces said 'We, Soldiers of Italy, give full honour to the valour of the allied forces, but we hope and trust that Germany will win. We are therefore awaiting orders. We are ready'.

Because of these declarations and the hostile attitude of the Italian press, the British, on Monday issued orders to their ships on the way to and from the Far East to keep outside Mediterranean waters and made provision, at the same time, for furnishing escorts to those ships already on the way between Gibraltar and Suez. The allied Fleets in the Mediterranean have been further reinforced and are believed to be in occupation of all the strategic points under their control in these waters. The personnel of the British and French Embassies have everything in readiness for a hurried departure.

The British Chargé d'Affaires2 had an interview yesterday with Count Ciano, but the nature of their discussion has not transpired. The American Ambassador3 also saw the Duce yesterday, because of the seriousness of the situation, but nothing has been disclosed as to the bearing of their conversation. Later in the evening I met at a party, a number of officials of the American Embassy together with their wives. They all seemed pessimistic and the women folk were apparently under the impression that orders would be forthcoming from Washington, at any moment, for them to return to the United States. One could only conclude that the impression left by the Duce on the Ambassador was responsible for their gloomy state of mind.

Despite these alarms, it does not seem that Italy is making any important military preparations. Only one class has recently been called to the colours which would bring the total under arms to about a million and a quarter men. The Italian air force, with about 3,000 planes, many of which are far from modern, is supposed to be on a war footing. The Italian navy is fully mobilised. This arm is particularly strong in submarines of which it has 113. Many of these are, however, of a low tonnage, but could be very effective at a radius of one hundred miles or so from their base.

Yesterday the Italian railway, postal, telegraph and radio services were put on a war footing. It would, therefore, appear that all the preliminary preparations have been made to permit Italy to change her policy from one of 'non-belligerency' to that of active participation on the side of her ally, or, to independent action against Yougoslavia, in the course of a couple of hours.

I am now satisfied that the Duce has made up his mind to enter the conflict on the side of Germany of whose eventual victory he seems to be convinced. It may be in a week or six weeks or even six months, but before taking that step Hitler must bring off some spectacular coup that would help the Italian public to make up its mind to back him to the limit. Had the invasion of Norway gone according to plan, Italy would probably have entered the conflict at once, and it is quite possible she will do so if the allied forces are ejected from Scandinavia. The anti British campaign in the Italian press has already convinced many Italians of the eventual defeat of the allies and the fact that the British forces in Norway are now fighting with their backs to the wall is being played for all it is worth.

1 Count Dino Grandi (1895-1988), Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs (1929-32), President of the Chamber of Fasci and Corporations (1938-43).

2 Sir Noel Hughes Havelock Charles.

3 William Phillips (1878-1968), United States Ambassador to Italy (1936-41).

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